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Tony Stewart's on the Pocono pole...and taking aim at the media (surprise, surprise!)...while that 800-pound gorilla, the NFL, cranks up for its new season

  Tony Stewart talking with crew chief Darien Grubb (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

    POCONO, Pa.
    Gotta love Tony Stewart's take on the world sometimes.
   And take it with a grain of salt.
   As the guy who probably helped initiate NASCAR's policy of 'secret' penalties for things Daytona officials don't like their drivers saying, it was almost a double-take moment when here Stewart actually blamed the media for this sport's attendance-and-TV woes.
    Stewart, the two-time NASCAR Cup tour champion, is on the pole for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500, with Juan Pablo Montoya, just off a dominating but ill-fated run at Indianapolis in the Brickyard 400, next to him for the 1 p.m. green. Stewart is looking for his first tour win since Kansas last fall; Montoya is looking for his first tour win since the summer of 2007. Others to watch – Ford men like Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. 
    Some perspective here for Stewart and other tour drivers:
    The ranks of the NASCAR media, regulars who cover the tour, have been decimated the past two years as newspaper after newspaper simply cut the beat from the budget. The number of regular print journalists covering this sport on any consistent basis is, well, down to about four or five. Many major U.S. papers that used to be strong on NASCAR coverage have all but given up covering any but a handful of events...and sometimes even the Daytona 500 itself has been cut from the paper's budget.
    Who is this NASCAR media these days? Principally local and area newspapers and a sprinkling of dot-coms. And TV networks of course, with their own staff of reporters.
    Just listen to some of the press conference questions some weekend, and see how many regular newspapers are even covering this sport any more.
    At Las Vegas earlier this year drivers could hear and really feel the silence in the media center, because of the severe newspaper cutbacks (the Los Angeles Times didn't even send a reporter three hours up I-15 to cover the race), and some seem quite stunned. At Indianapolis last weekend the emptiness of the media center was even more pronounced.
    Some more perspective here:
    NASCAR's crowds are off considerably, yes; the 140,000 estimate for the Brickyard 400 was by some accounts generous. But then there are some 2.5 million unemployed people in the surrounding area, people who at the moment are probably more concerned about getting down the aisles at Kroger than getting a ticket to a sporting event.
    And NASCAR's TV audiences are off too, which is even more worrisome, because it doesn't cost much at all to turn on the TV set and lay back on the couch to watch.
   Here's veteran journalist Jim Peltz' latest report on all this for his paper, the Los Angeles Times:   http://bit.ly/aSv69h

    For comparison, the National Football League TV numbers are continuing to climb. The NFL crowds are down about three percent from the record 2007 season, but the NFL's TV ratings are the highest since 1990 – nearly 17 million for each regular season game...and that's some two million more TV viewers than in 2008.
    Maybe the question should be raised 'What is the NFL doing right that NASCAR should also be doing?'
    And the NFL season kicks off August 8th, with Cincinnati @ Dallas, and follows quickly with a string of games August 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th. – Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Over that week NASCAR plays at Watkins Glen and Michigan.
    But back to Tony Stewart.
    Remember Phoenix, 2007: After losing to Jeff Gordon, in part because of a late caution, Stewart lost his cool:
   "It's like playing God. They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it. It's happened too many times this year.
   "I guess NASCAR thinks 'Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing too.
   "I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR.
    "I don't know that they've run a fair race all year.
    "To me it's not all about the money, it's about the integrity of the sport. When I feel our own sanctioning body isn't taking care of that, it's hard to support them and feel proud about being a driver...when they're throwing debris cautions."
    The kicker to that outburst – it was on Stewart's own radio show, which Stewart hosted....as a media dude himself.
    NASCAR declined to penalize Stewart for that outburst.
    But today, under those 'secret' rules, Stewart would likely get hit for one of $50,000 fines.
   So when Stewart was pressed here on the newest controversy – in which teammate Ryan Newman, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, got tagged by NASCAR a few weeks ago for criticizing Talladega racing as dangerous – he was rather subdued.
   At first.
   Then Stewart warmed up on one of his long-time punching bags, the assembled media.
   Stewart, remember, last fall at Kansas City said he loved coming into the media center because "it makes me feel smarter when I leave here."
   This time Stewart fired up again:
   What to make of these 'secret' $50,000 NASCAR penalties for saying the 'wrong' things?
   "Honestly I don't know what's right and what's wrong on this topic," Stewart said.
    "What everyone has to remember is that NASCAR's done a good job of building this sport over 60 years...and between everyone in this room (the media center) and in the garage we have all done our part to try to break this sport down over the last four or five years. 
    "We're all to blame. 
     "As drivers we're just as much to blame as anybody else. 
     "At the same time I'm going to blame you guys....you guys have to take some of the responsibility for it.  When you tell someone that the racing is bad long enough, you're going to convince people that it really is. 
    "The result of that is not having as many people in the grandstand. 
     "We all have to take the blame for it. That is what put NASCAR in the position they're in right now.  We all have to take the responsibility for it. 
     "The facts show the racing is better than it's ever been; it's more competitive than it has ever been. 
    "Everybody has gotten so spoiled over the last 10 or 15 years that we've all lost sight of what we've really got here. 
    "Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included.
    "And we're all shooting ourselves in the foot, because we're convincing some of these people that this stuff is bad. 
     "It may not always be perfect. Every scenario may not always be perfect.
    "But every time we write something bad about it, or talk about it, all we do is break this sport down. And it doesn't deserve that. 
    "We're all making a pretty good living. And we're lucky to have our jobs doing what we do. 
     "I think what NASCAR is doing (with the 'secret' fines) is very appropriate."

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Fines not justified

Tony Stewart, the car owner with a need to obtain new sponsorship to build his business, may think that the fines are 'very appropriate' however Tony Stewart, the driver, may well share Ryan Newman's views that Talladega is an excessively dangerous track at which to race. After all, he saw Newman lucky to survive the Talladega race as the cage was crushed so much that the safety crews had a lot of trouble getting him out. What would have happened if there had been a fire? Or if the cage had crushed one inch more? There would have been a very poor outcome. And can we really blame Denny Hamlin for bringing up what historically seems to be NASCAR's long standing propensity to drop the yellow for 'debris' (either mysteriously not visible to anyone or something tossed out of the window by a driver) to tighten the field, give a favorite driver a better shot, or create a good finish? The Newman issue is very serious and he should be commended by Nascar for bringing it up while the Hamblin issue is a nudge-nudge-wink-wink deal that merely states the way it is (and maybe even adds to the show!). Either way, no fines are justified!

I agree with you on every

I agree with you on every point. NASCAR,instead of fining Newman, should put him on a drivers' safety committee to work with tracks to make them safer. I'm just very, very thankful that Ryan's car didn't catch on fire while he was hanging upside down -- for 12 minutes, while safety crews tried to extract him.

Newman Was Wrong

His safety was not jeopardized by being upside down, and the savagery of the racing is what real racing is about - the field fighting to win the race. He was supposed to be mad at Robby Gordon for spinning him out, not at NASCAR. Excessive danger is to be found at tracks that are not restricted. Raw speed matters more for safety than the field all being equalized at Talladega; it showed at Pocono in June, at Watkins Glen twice in the last two seasons, at Atlanta in March and in a series of melees in the late 1990s and early 2000s (notably when Steve Grissom blew open a concrete wall), at Charlotte for 20-plus years of brutal crashes, at Texas repeatedly (Tony Roper, Derrike Cope, Michael McDowell, etc.), at Richmond (G-forces far more lethal than at Talladega and shown by Nadeau's career-ending crash), at Kansas (remember Sterling Marlin nearly breaking a vetebrae in 2002?), at Chicagoland (more than one injury there in the track's short time), concussions suffered by Jeremy Mayfield and Ward Burton at non-plate tracks, and.... you get the picture?

Here Newman manifestly deserved to be fined, because he has no right to be a coward. Anonymous' argument fails because it is too dependent on "What if?" The fire threat was simply not there. He also assumes that NASCAR in fact WANTS to create the winners with phony cautions - that strikes at the credibility of the sport and it's an area NASCAR has no desire to flirt with. Bad rules, bad calls, and excessive control of the racing by the officiating tower are a reality, but rigging races is a myth.

The problem with the fines is that NASCAR manifestly has real problems and Brian France's credibility as a leader continues to collapse; fining drivers comes out as a leader living in denial and thus lashing out. The gimmicks he's hoisted onto the sport in the Chase, the COT, marketing NASCAR The Brand instead of marketing racing, and refusing to address team spending (that recent car owners' powwow didn't seem to be serious about addressing it, either) have all eroded the sport's competitive depth and thus popularity.

NASCAR's problems go beyond Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin.

come on.....

Mulhern --- why are you shocked over these "secret" fines? it's nothing new. In the good 'old' days nascar would catch you speeding on pit road. no data other than some dude with a stopwatch smiling at you. can't do that now --- all times are recorded and available. Its like Robert Y told me years ago, that nascar would have the box so tight they'd have to get creative to get back at you.... well, here we are.

And you gotta take Stewey with a grain of salt -- as you point out. he's been the Tasmanian Devil from time to time. Hell, remember when he chided Larry Woody over being a local so he can't possibly know what racing was about.

hope the weather holds out for you tomorrow --- as I recall Pocono is a downer in the rain in that damp media center.


Shocked? lol. Bemused I might

Shocked? lol. Bemused I might say.....remember, I hung around Junior Johnson and Richard Petty back in the days of those 454s stuffed with cigarette butts -- no harm, no foul....and who cares about what bobby allison thinks.
but, hey, i'm already laying plans for that end-of-the-2011-season nascar winner-take-all championship spectacular at LVMS....think i read about that in mikemulhern.net

Since when is ti the

Since when is ti the responsibility of the media to promote the sport/racertainment? I thought it was up to the media to report the facts, not be part of the Nascar PR machine. Now, who is going to bother reading interviews with drivers? The public has no way of knowing if they are hearing the driver's real opinion or just what they think Nascar wants them to say.

nascar has become pc. like it

nascar has become pc. like it or not they are. i refuse to spend my money on this sport. more and more fans like me are doing the same. look at the empty seats at indy. we are sick of it and will not buy into this crap. sorry nascar. your days are numbered.

NASCAR is more

NASCAR is more becoming....
....something to watch on TV till College and Pro football starts.

Mike Mulhern

You should listen to the entire presser before you write an article about tony stewart bashing the media, Mike Mulhern. This is a little bit disappointing on your part and you should probably be embarrassed.

sorry, dude, i was there for

sorry, dude, i was there for the whole thing, right on the front row asking the questions. the one question i should have asked is if tony has been given any secret penalties by nascar lately.

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