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Talladega? Tony Stewart is still angry at all the shenanigans...and maybe it's time for NASCAR boss Mike Helton to weigh in

  Tony Stewart: game face on, a championship to win....Now if NASCAR can just get a handle on all these political games....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Tony's last stand?
   Stewart is poised perfectly to make Sunday's Martinsville 500 quite dramatic, because it could well be the make-it or break-it race for the two-time NASCAR champion in his bid for a third crown.
   And that could be a remarkable comeback, as much as Stewart struggled the first half of the stock car racing season.

   So what's going on inside Tony Stewart's head at the moment?
   Maybe this:
   Might all those Talladega political shenanigans http://bit.ly/rFF3EQ wind up costing Stewart the NASCAR championship?
   And if so, would NASCAR's seeming inability or unwillingness to deal with Team Orders cast a dark cloud over this season's Sprint Cup title?
   NASCAR's continued silence over all the Talladega controversies is surprising, and quite noticeable here at Martinsville Speedway, where Round Seven of the 10-race playoffs is set for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Maybe it's time for some serious jawboning from NASCAR president Mike Helton.


   Jimmie Johnson may be out of the championship hunt, but Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, will be spending a little more time than expected these next few weeks over at NASCAR's R&D center in post-race tear-down inspections, after his cryptic comments at Talladega. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Brad Keselowski, one of the five men still in the championship picture, looks at Talladega and says pointedly "I think everybody would say it has been a rough week on the ethical scale of what's going on in the sport." 

    Stewart hasn't hidden his Talladega frustrations, not a bit. And in the
face of denials from rivals, Stewart says simply 'Go look at the video.'
    "When you have multi-car teams -- and you saw a distinct deal last weekend with manufacturers running with each other -- it is becoming more apparent what is going on," Steward fumes.
    "You can talk to everybody you want to talk to, and everybody is going to say 'No, they are not doing this,' or 'Yes they are doing this…'

    "But all you have to do is pause your TV and look and see, and it pretty much tells the story of what is going on.

     "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how it's evolving that way because of the two-car draft."



Smoke has been smokin'....and not just on the track. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   There are many ethical issues coming out of the Talladega weekend. But let's just look, for one, at Tony Stewart, and his bid to beat Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick for this year's title.

   If not for the political games that rivals appeared to be playing last weekend in Round Six of the 10-race playoffs, Stewart might well have won the Talladega 500.
   Stewart led the most laps, even though Stewart said that Ford Team Orders had precluded him from teaming with his planned partner, David Gilliland. (Ford officials vigorously deny any Team Orders.)
   Stewart still had a great shot at the win in the closing laps, up front and being pushed by Paul Menard….until whatever happened when Menard began falling back on the final restart, taking Stewart out of the hunt and leaving Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer – Menard's teammates – to battle it out. Did Menard himself follow Team Orders and back off to keep Stewart from making a run for the win? Certainly the maneuverings in those final miles is curious.
   If Stewart had won, he would have earned 48 points, instead of the 39 points he got for his seventh place finish.
   And he would be going into Sunday's Martinsville 500 in second place in the Sprint Cup standings, just 10 points behind tour leader Carl Edwards, with four races still to run. As it is, Stewart is 19 down, still within striking distance…particularly here.



Tony Stewart: jobbed at Talladega? Well, it's not nice to mess with this guy. He bites back, hard. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   If Stewart were only 10 points down here Sunday morning, he could easily leave Martinsville Speedway as the Sprint Cup leader, because 10 points is about the difference of 10 finishing positions in a race.
   Just based on career Best Average Finishes at this flat half-mile, Stewart should pick up at least three points on Edwards Sunday afternoon.
   And Stewart has won twice here, while Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski – the men just ahead of him in the standings – are all still winless here.
    All in all, this race may well be the biggest race of the season yet for Stewart….and a possible turning point in his bid for a third NASCAR championship.

   Talladega, and yes, woulda, shoulda, coulda….
   Still, no wonder Stewart is irate. All those Talladega shenanigans are hanging heavy in the air…
   Stewart himself had sounded the warning to NASCAR two days before the Talladega race that Team Orders were in play, a warning apparently ignored by NASCAR.

     Stewart, in a well-mannered, upbeat but pointed pre-race interview here, explained what really went on at Talladega from his viewpoint, and said it was very important for NASCAR to find a way to eliminate the two-car drafts that have warped racing at the tour's two biggest ovals into something marred by politics.



Darian Grubb, Tony Stewart's crew chief, has been on the mark since Atlanta Labor Day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Here's the big-picture setting for Stewart:
   How close is this championship game?
   Some points of reference, for how close these championships the last few years have been:
   Jimmie Johnson won the 2010 title by 39 points in the old system; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing sixth.
   Johnson won the 2009 title by 141 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing 35th.
   Johnson won the 2008 title by 69 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing 14th.
   Johnson won the 2007 title by 77 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing 15th.
   Johnson won the 2006 title by 56 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing 9th.
   Stewart won the 2005 title by 35 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing 5th.
   Kurt Busch won the 2004 title by 8 (old) points; that's the difference between winning the final race and finishing second.

   No wonder Stewart is irate about feeling like he got jobbed at Talladega.
   After all this is the sport's championship at issue, and there should be no Team Orders or other political issues involved.
   This sport's fans certainly deserve a clean and fair championship chase, not one clouded by as many ugly issues as came out of Talladega.


   Brad Keselowski: A newcomer to NASCAR, but in the thick of the championship battle...and bemoaning the ethical questions raised by the actions of several rivals at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For Stewart, consider this too: Since the Labor Day 500 at Atlanta, Stewart has the second-best finishing average among the five men still in the title hunt; only Edwards is finishing better (5.1 versus 8.4).
   And consider this: Stewart has a better career finishing average at Texas than Edwards, and Stewart has a better career finishing average at Phoenix than Edwards.
    Stewart could, based on average finishes, pick up at least five points on Edwards at those two tracks.
   But at Homestead…..Edwards has the clear edge. Though both Edwards and Stewart have two wins at the Miami track, Edwards' average finish of 5.7 is much better than Stewart's 12.4.
   The championship rule-of-thumb over the years has been that a title contender must go into the final race of the season no further behind the leader than 30 (old) points, which is this season about six points – six finishing positions (other than winning). If that holds true again this season, a challenger could pick up those six points by winning Homestead and leading the most laps.
   And any tie-breaker goes to victories over the season….and Stewart at the moment has two, Edwards still just one.



    Carl Edwards will be on the pole for Sunday's Martinsville 500, after rain pushed NASCAR to scrap qualifying Saturday. The top 12 starters at 2 p.m. ET will be the 12 chase drivers. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    As hot as Edwards has been at Homestead, is Stewart figuring that's Edwards' ace-in-the-hole in this title chase?
    Nope, Stewart insists: "Our 1-1/2-mile stuff has been pretty good this year, and we've gained on it a lot.
    "So I'm looking forward to going back to Homestead, honestly.
     "But I still look at it all from the standpoint we've got four weeks to get it done…and we've got to be spot-on for four weeks.
     "Even if we win the next four races, if Carl runs second, they could still probably win the thing, mathematically.
      "So it's not really so much in our hands. And that takes the pressure off us. We can just go out and try to win the races.
     "It's more in their hands -- having the pressure in trying to figure out what to do and where to finish and all that.
     "But they have been very good at Homestead the last couple of years. But I've been to tracks where we were great the last time and then come back a year later and not be able to hit it at all.
     "So anything can change."
    Since Atlanta Stewart has been hot on the 1-1/2-mile tracks. But the five title contenders look pretty much even-steven at the moment.
    How have the five remaining title challengers looked at the tour's four  1-1/2-mile tracks since Labor Day Atlanta?
    Edwards' average has been 4.25, certainly championship material.
    Brad Keselowski, at 4.5, isn't far off.
    Matt Kenseth, disregarding that gas-mileage-stymied 21st at Chicago (where he dominated), has averaged a 4.6 over the other three 1-1/2-miles.
    Kevin Harvick has averaged a 5.25.
    Stewart has averaged 6.75.
    Political games have long been a part of NASCAR of course. But…..
    "When I started, the political games (at Daytona and Talladega) were the teams, when they went to restrictor plate tracks, they tried to not show their hand until race day," Stewart says.
    "Then NASCAR got chassis dynos, and they could figure out exactly what was going on.
     "But this is something NASCAR really can't control once the cars go on the track -- what the drivers are doing, how they are pairing up….and is it because of manufacturers, is it because of individual organizations?
    "It is hard for NASCAR to control that.
    "The answer is make it to where you can't push each other. If you can physically keep the cars from pushing each other, then that eliminates the problem.
    "If you can keep the cars from actually making contact with each other and physically pushing each other, that is the logical way to solve it."

   Changing the Daytona-Talladega rules now seems a no-brainer, considering how political and downright weird this two-car drafting has become.
    Does Stewart have any suggestions?
     "Everybody has an idea…but the thing is every time someone comes up with an idea there is an opposite reaction, how it affects something else," Stewart says.
    "I have faith NASCAR will figure out the right thing to do.
    "But it is a tough situation -- It is starting to get way too political on the race track now…and that is not the scenario you want to be in as a driver, to try to decide a championship.
   "If I had a great idea, I would go to NASCAR; we are all in this together, and everybody wants it to be better.
     "I just don’t have that idea.
    "It is not about whose idea is it, and who comes up with it. We just want the end result."

    And bottom line for Stewart now: What can Stewart do here Sunday? He hasn't had a decent finish at this place since 2009, he hasn't won since 2006, and his average lately has been, well, dismal.
   This could well be the make-or-break race for Stewart in his title bid. He's got to take a bite out of Edwards' lead.
   "We have struggled here the last two or three races, so we definitely needed to look outside box and try to come up with something different," Stewart concedes.
    If Stewart falters here, and Edwards leaves still in championship command, then, well, Daytona 500 testing isn't that far off….

   A month ago these 12 men each had a shot at the NASCAR championship. Now, with four races to go, the title contenders are down to four or five, with Carl Edwards (far left) atop the pack (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Stewart is not alone...Junior

Stewart is not alone...Junior was not happy with the way his "team orders" worked out..pretty much all to help JJ. Gordon got dumped, RCR totally worked to help Harvick, Edwards could have called his race in by phone, and all in all team orders and couples racing made for a fairly boring race. The shame of it all was when it came down to the final restart...there was a chance for a great fight to the finish..but alas..due to "team orders" it never happened! I would like to ask all those drivers who dropped their partners on the final restart " how'd that work out for you?". As a fan it stunk!

Josie criticizes the drivers

Josie criticizes the drivers at Talladega for "dropping their partners on the final restart." I'm baffled here because the rip I always hear about this racing is that drivers are ostensibly too dependant on partners to be able to race. And she calls the race boring - how is 72 lead changes "boring"?

People want to chafe at team orders and while it is very troublesome the fact is the drivers brought this on themselves. They've made 2-car superdrafting work and now there's no going back; NASCAR can't make it go away because it is unstoppably effective. The idea that misaligning the bumpers on the cars died when Mike Wallace and Ron Hornaday proved the superdraft is unstoppable in the Trucks with their misaligned bumpers; Junior's idea to reduce the size of the spoiler and to allow softer rear setups can't possibly work because it's the 5&5 Myth all over again and the drivers will not give up superdrafting - they didn't go along with the assumptions behind the 5&5 Rule and they won't stop superdrafting.

Moreover NASCAR should not even WANT to make it go away; on the contrary NASCAR needs to bring it to more tracks - superdrafting has increased passing multi-fold, and that level of power to pass is needed at all the tracks. This much passing is far more important to the sport than chafing over team orders that will evolve away from the situation the longer teams race just as coordination of swaps is evolving away from superdrafting because it's becoming more self-defeating.

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