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Caraviello: There's something about Stewart that's hard to ignore

August 29, 2012, David Caraviello,

Hard to ignore, even Stewart's bad side can wind up being good for NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- For a guy nicknamed Smoke, generating some of it by spinning tires should have come natural. And yet on Tony Stewart's first attempt at piloting a drift car around a portion of the infield road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he spun off into the grass. Then he went around in a corner, not once but twice. Finally on his third lap, the NASCAR champion got comfortable enough in the screeching, weaving machine that he made it all the way around, and emerged all smiles.

"I'd have been better off in a mall parking lot," he said, probably not giving himself the credit he deserved. So much about driving it seemed backward -- rather than staying off the throttle to let the tires catch up, you were in the gas, hard, almost all of the time. The lightweight vehicle also demanded liberal use of a handbrake, which Stewart admits he hasn't employed much other than in a few rental cars he's torn up. For all the screeching it emitted and all the smoke it produced, the drift car needed to be driven in one single, flowing motion. Kind of like a golf swing.

Sincerest form of flattery

Ever since Stewart chucked with helmet toward Kenseth, the copy cats have come out.

Or perhaps, like a certain parabolic heave of a certain helmet during a certain Sprint Cup race Saturday night.

Ah, yes. The helmet. Stewart was far from the first NASCAR racer to fling a headpiece in anger -- former high-school quarterback Dale Jarrett had him beat by nearly two decades, firing an overhead direct strike at Bobby Hillin's car after an incident at Bristol in 1993. He wasn't even the first driver to do it this season; Todd Bodine chunked his helmet toward Nelson Piquet Jr. during a Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono. But Stewart just might be the highest-profile driver to heave a headpiece after his two-handed throw toward Matt Kenseth's car at Bristol punctuated a feud between the two that had begun earlier on the race track.

"Not bad for a 41-year-old who doesn't work out," Stewart joked. "I got more velocity with two hands than I [would have] with one. It was a little unorthodox, but I got good velocity on it."

Rest assured, no major-league pitching coaches will be calling anytime soon. Even so, it seems no coincidence that Stewart's actions came in the most-viewed Bristol night race ever for the network that aired it, just as it seemed no accident that a certain two-time series champion was central last season in a galvanizing championship race that ultimately netted him a third crown. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be the sport's most popular driver, but there's just something about Stewart that makes him impossible to ignore, whether he's winning races, throwing down unparalleled verbal ultimatums, or doing something that makes you wonder if a penalty is coming later. Even when he's bad he's good for NASCAR, something that can't be said about every driver.

Had anyone thrown a helmet Saturday, it would have made news. The fact that Stewart was involved transformed it into a viral phenomenon, which in the days since has been broken down like Stephen Strasburg's delivery. Certainly, it was made all that more dramatic by the setting -- the lights, the buildup, the fiery words spoken afterward. Visually, it was a riveting moment. And it was all enhanced by the man at the center of it, whose strangely appealing devilishness makes him so beloved, and enables him to get away with things in the public eye that other drivers can't. Kyle Busch throws that helmet, and furor rains down from the masses. Stewart does it, and emerges an antihero.

It helps that he can smirk about it later. "I can't say I've practiced that a lot," Stewart said. "Maybe I can find some used-up helmets my dad used in his racing career and practice in the backyard like I used to with baseball."

Baseball, though, wasn't Stewart's calling. That much was evident Tuesday, when sponsor Mobil 1 -- the company behind the seat swap with Formula One star Lewis Hamilton last year at Watkins Glen -- surrounded Stewart with a variety of vehicles ranging from a van to an M-36 Jackson tank destroyer, which was used in World War II. After his spin in the drift car with professional Tyler McQuarrie, Stewart happily climbed aboard the M-36, which had its metal tracks replaced by rubber so it wouldn't do too much damage to the speedway's infield. Oddly enough, Stewart had driven a tank once before, on the Indiana property of a friend who supplies military props to the film industry.

"I guess the old theory is, as long as it's press, it's good. So whether it's good or bad, it's at least out there."


"We literally just mowed over a tree with it, so it was pretty impressive," he said. There were no such hijinks Tuesday -- the standing order was no running over anything with the tank, not even a die-cast of a Kenseth No. 17 car presented by a quick-thinking speedway publicist. Although, Stewart was able to think of how useful the 29-ton mechanized monster might have been a few days earlier at Bristol. "I don't know if we could have stayed on the lead lap," he said, "but eventually we would have been able to get our laps back."

And almost assuredly, the contact with Kenseth wouldn't have resulted in both vehicles slamming into the inside wall. But then, everyone would have been denied one of this season's more iconic moments, something that so dominated the days after Bristol -- apologies, race winner Denny Hamlin -- that even Stewart heard about it all day Monday, and expected another earful when he went to dinner with friends Tuesday night. Stewart thought he might be penalized for his helmet toss, but NASCAR let it go.

"It's nice to know that's something you can get away with," he said, that devilishness coming out again. In truth, Stewart likely won't be throwing any helmets again anytime soon -- he receives a certain number each season from Simpson, his manufacturer of choice, so his supply is more limited than it might seem. When he got back in the car after the incident Saturday night, he strapped on a backup number. For safety reasons, the original couldn't be used again after clunking off the nose of Kenseth's Ford. Regardless, Stewart hasn't laid eyes on the first helmet since he sent it flying at the No. 17 car. When he does find it, he likely won't keep it for long since charities are clamoring to put it up for auction.

Once again, that's all vintage Stewart -- something positive coming out of something that didn't start with the best of intentions. He throws his helmet, and the fans go crazy and the television numbers surge. He badgers Carl Edwards for three consecutive weeks, sometimes playfully and sometimes not, and creates an atmosphere that demands attention above and beyond the closest title race in history.

He's slumping a little now as the Chase nears, having fallen to the 10th and final Chase position awarded on points, but who knows of what he's capable? Look at all did he did with just a helmet. "I guess the old theory is, as long as it's press, it's good. So whether it's good or bad, it's at least out there," Stewart said. Indeed, it's out there, all right. Just like a certain helmet, flying in an arc across the sky.

Breaking out the big gun: Tony Stewart rides in a World War II-era tank. (Getty Images)

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.