Stewart new voice for drivers

When Stewart talks, NASCAR is starting to listen

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The most important job in NASCAR, five years vacant, has been filled.

Tony Stewart has emerged as the drivers' leader.

He has by no means sought the role. It has befallen him.

Whenever Dale Earnhardt walked into NASCAR's offices at a track, and spoke, everybody listened.


But Earnhardt sometimes entered with his own agenda. And he often kept it private.

Stewart, like Richard Petty 30 years ago, speaks with everyone in mind, and airs his issues to the public.

With "only" 24 wins and two championships, Stewart has less than a third the numbers of NASCAR's winningest active driver, Jeff Gordon (73 wins and four championships), who is actually a few months younger (they're both 34).

And Stewart isn't the rock star Dale Earnhardt Jr. is -- although Stewart's current place as reigning champion has expanded NASCAR's Big Two into the Big Three.

Petty himself has said the role of leader is Earnhardt Jr.'s if he wants it. But Earnhardt doesn't. He feels he's not yet qualified.

Gordon is sometimes too diplomatic for his -- and the other drivers' -- own good.

The new leader

Enter Stewart, even though he got a later start in NASCAR than Gordon. Stewart came up harder and then went IndyCar racing for a while, and he still he can't resist running Saturday night races on down-home dirt tracks.


Virtually any driver here will tell you he doesn't have a better friend than Stewart. Of them all, he is the purest racer and the most human, with the best heart -- his outbursts of the past (and maybe the future) notwithstanding.

His installation at the helm occurred during a few minutes last Sunday evening, after the "bump drafting" (rear-ending at 190 mph) got too rough in the Budweiser Shootout, the bonus race that kicked off Daytona 500 week.

After finishing third, Stewart spoke softly but profoundly.

"I was watching TV before we came down here and they were talking about a tribute to Dale Earnhardt," he began. "Five years from now, we're probably going to have to do another tribute to another driver because we're going to kill somebody from Wednesday (when practice opened) to Sunday (in the Daytona 500).

"It could be me, or Dale Jr., or anybody out there."

Hyperbolic as his words may have been, he knew exactly what he was doing. It was a masterstroke for getting the attention of the 70 million or so Americans who follow NASCAR. With so much being said and written this month about the enormous strides in safety since Earnhardt's death, Stewart's bombshell left NASCAR no choice but action.

From the media center, he walked down to the NASCAR trailer in the garage area and stated his case rationally and professionally, according to those who heard him.

To see how seriously he took Stewart, all you had to do was hear the stern admonition from NASCAR President Mike Helton at the drivers' meeting Thursday morning, before the 150-mile "duels."


The penalty for bump drafting in the turns "at minimum will be a pass-through (in the pits), but it could be much more severe, depending on what happens on the racetrack," Helton said.

Bottom line: Do it and you cost yourself any chance at winning the race.

At NASCAR's R&D; facility in North Carolina, engineers are working urgently to meet Stewart's suggestion of changing front bumpers so that any-bump drafting will damage a car's aerodynamics, automatically penalizing the offender. The change should come by the next restrictor-plate race, at Talladega, Ala., in April.

Stewart nearly died

Earnhardt the elder accepted the risks of racing that he deemed necessary, but despised unnecessary, artificially created danger. He disliked some of the "aero packages" -- sets of technical specifications -- NASCAR came up with from time to time. Most of all, he loathed the dicey drafting conditions here in February 2001.

But that week Earnhardt kept his concerns mostly private.

Even without head restraints and soft walls, Earnhardt might be alive today if he'd sounded off, forced the issue, tried his case in public. The aero rules didn't kill Earnhardt, but they helped put him in precarious position to have the wreck that killed him.

No living person understands that better than Stewart, who nearly died that day himself, in a far worse-looking crash than Earnhardt's. Safety scientists believe that if Stewart's full-face helmet hadn't slammed into his steering wheel -- restraining the forward thrust of his head -- he likely would have died of basal skull fracture just like Earnhardt, and Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin Jr.

This week, Stewart has tried to reject the leader's role, saying his opinion shouldn't count any more than any other driver's. "Your feelings aren't ranked by the point standings," he said.

But the mantel fits too well. Stewart to his peers is so much more than just a champion.

Ed Hinton writes for the The Orlando Sentinel. His coumn is distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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