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Caraviello: Weary veterans ready to push back

September 21, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Weary of being pushed around, veterans such as Stewart ready to push back

Even though he won Monday's rain-delayed Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, the event was not without its headaches for Tony Stewart. Foremost among them was the literal, a migraine that burrowed into the two-time NASCAR champion's brain about an hour before qualifying Saturday, and didn't begin to ease until the morning of the race. Such an episode isn't uncommon for Stewart -- "you feel like you want to get hit by a train, it would make you feel better," he said -- who probably didn't mind the extra day of rest he received when the 400-miler was pushed back by weather.

The postponement, though, did nothing to ease his other headache, which stemmed from some of the other drivers around him. Stewart has long been a proponent of more give-and-take on the race track, particularly early in events, and Monday was one of those days when the competition rubbed him the wrong way. As a result, he bared his teeth and delivered a few blows of his own, as he proved on a restart when he slung his No. 14 car up among the leaders rather than hang back in the more calculated manner he often employs. This is the era of aggression in NASCAR, and it's fueled by single-file restarts, green-white-checkered finishes, and drivers who are young and fearless. Now, some veterans tired of being pushed around are deciding to give as good as they get.

That was certainly the case Monday with Stewart, and who knows how much that jolt of anger played in propelling the driver to his long-awaited first victory of an uneven season. Stewart said his gripes weren't about his fellow championship contenders, but drivers who didn't make the Chase -- who considerably outnumber those in the title hunt.

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This is a series that long-ago abandoned its "gentlemen's agreement" against racing back to the yellow, because some drivers simply wouldn't abide by it. Stewart said the level of etiquette on the race track has eroded even further, to the point where everyone is being forced to play the same game.

"It wasn't a lot of give-and-take there. There was a lot of times that it was obvious that guys were quicker than others earlier in the race, and instead of using the etiquette we've had forever ... I don't think you're going to see that etiquette anymore. I think it's just dying off. I think guys don't care whether they make anybody mad on the race track or not. They're just going to do what they want to do, and they're only solely worried about themselves. So we're going to start adopting that attitude," he said after the race.

"I mean, I'm tired of being a guy that gives a guy a break and then a guy doesn't do it in return or the guy puts you in a bad situation. And we were put in multiple bad situations by guys that I got a lot of respect for and that are friends of mine. So I'm just going to adapt to their style. I mean, I'm not going to fight 42 guys to try to convince them to do the right thing. They don't want to do the right thing, so we're just going to do it their way. It's a lot easier to not care about anybody but ourselves. That's what we'll do."

Now, let's be clear -- NASCAR is not exactly high tea. This is no sport for the meek. Even if all drivers were as courteous of one another as Stewart wishes they would be, you'd still have street fights for track position and bare-knuckled brawls on restarts. The current rules simply demand it, given how much better cars run in clean air, and how chaotic the situation now becomes at the drop of every green flag. NASCAR is a series that forces all drivers, at some point, to look out solely for themselves. But Stewart's message seems to be that there's a time and a place for all that, and it's not all the time and every place, which is evidently the scenario he sees unfolding now. And clearly, he doesn't like it.

"When you had Dale Earnhardt around, you learned if you weren't doing the right thing. And Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace, they would teach you if you were doing something wrong at the wrong time. And you see what happens now. Take somebody out, they get their car fixed, they come out and their sole goal is not to finish it out and get the points they can get.; their sole purpose on coming back to the race track is to ruin your day," he said.

"So, it's just the attitude of everybody on the race track's changed. The ante has, I guess, gone up. So there's a part of the sport that I liked, because I like the respect that guys gave each other. There's still guys that do. You've got guys like Matt Kenseth and Jeff [Gordon] and Jimmie [Johnson] and [Kevin] Harvick. There's still guys that do. But the funny thing is, that guys that don't do it are the guys that don't have good days all the time. And they haven't figured out if you work with everybody that everybody else will work with you, but you gotta do what everybody else is doing. And there's a handful of guys that we still know will race us with respect, and that's why those guys end up up front every week. It's our advantage that those guys are the only few guys that know how to do it."

To be fair, there were times earlier in his career when Stewart didn't appear exactly the epitome of give-and-take. But there's no driver with a better reputation on the race track than Mark Martin, and he seems to feel the same way as his contemporary in the No. 14 car. Martin had an on-track exchange at Atlanta with Regan Smith, which ended with contact that the young Southern 500 winner thought was deliberate. Martin said nothing to dispute that interpretation. Was that episode out of character for someone famous for how clean he races? Perhaps. But like Stewart, he's just getting tired of being pushed around, and he's starting to push back.

"With the way the racing has become today, the double-file restarts, how equal the cars are, it's driven -- it's pushed everyone to a whole different level of driving than it used to," Martin said prior to the recent Sprint Cup race at Richmond. "So part of that requires less sportsmanship and more me. More selfishness and less sportsmanship. I'm falling right in there with the game. ... I'll say again, these restarts, they're getting pretty tough, and I'm not going to be run into. I'm not going to be run into. I don't run into people, and people aren't going to get away with running into me."

Given all that, it seemed appropriate Stewart's Chicagoland victory -- the 40th of his career -- tied him with Martin for 16th place on NASCAR's all-time win list. "He's somebody I've got a lot of respect for and a lot of admiration for," Stewart said of Martin, "and I wish I could be more like him." If his comments Monday were any indication, in some ways he already is.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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