The Racing Capital
of the World
March 27, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
As a team owner in the Indianapolis 500, there is no bigger “Brickyard Legend” than Roger Penske, whose cars have won a record 15 Indy 500s. As a homegrown race driver from Indiana, it’s hard to find anyone that represents the Hoosier State and its racing heritage better than Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind.
Just last winter, Penske tried to lure Stewart into a ride for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-car Brickyard 400 winner Stewart had to decline because of scheduling and sponsorship conflicts.
But a major conflict has developed between Stewart and one of Penske’s Cup drivers, Joey Logano, with the two involved in a pit-road brawl at the end of the Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race March 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Stewart was irate over Logano’s blocking tactics on a late-race restart that nearly drove Stewart off the track. To add to the controversy, Logano was involved in a last-lap crash with former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin that sent Hamlin’s Toyota into a hard-slam against an unprotected concrete infield retaining wall. The collision broke Hamlin’s back, and he will be out of his car for approximately six weeks while he heals from the L1 compression fracture. Hamlin will not require surgery.
The common denominator between Stewart’s fuming over the restart and Hamlin’s crash at the end of the race was Logano, who charged Hamlin after the season’s previous race, at Bristol Motor Speedway, after Hamlin bumped him out of the way and into the wall late in the race. Logano may have issued “payback” when he ran Hamlin into the wall on the last lap, but Stewart was determined to take matters into his hands on pit road after the race, resulting in a brief fight.
“What the hell do you think I was mad about – the dumb little son-of-a-(bleep) runs us clear down to the infield,” Stewart said immediately after the altercation. “He wants to (bleep) about everybody else, and he's the one who drives like a little (bleep). I'm going to bust his ass.”
Stewart and Logano were among the prime contenders racing for the lead on a restart with 10 laps remaining. Logano blocked Stewart’s Chevrolet all the way to the apron. Instead of winning the race, Stewart had to get off the throttle, losing momentum and finishing 22nd.
“Well, Joey (Logano) spun the tires on the restart -- everybody had trouble with that so, but it’s not my fault that he spun the tires,” Stewart said. “For a guy that has been complaining about how everybody else is driving here and then (for) him to do that it’s a double standard. He makes the choice. He makes the decision to run us down there, and when you run a driver down there then you take responsibility for what happens after that. He is a tough guy on pit road as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it. Until then, he’s a scared little kid. Then he wants to sit there and throw a water bottle at me.
“He is going to learn a lesson. He can run his mouth on Twitter and stuff all he wants tonight. I’ve got plenty of people that are going to watch for that. It’s time he learns a lesson. He’s run his mouth long enough. He has sat there and done this double standard and he’s nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to work in his life. He’s going to learn with us working guys that had to work our way up how it works.
“It’s still no excuse for Joey to do what he did. I’m just tired of watching these kids whine, and then they sit there and act tough when their crew guys get in the middle of it. If NASCAR wants us to let the guys have at it, it shouldn’t be any different than hockey. Let the guys have at it and then when one guy goes to the ground, then it’s over.”
Although a driver can block on the restart, Stewart was quick to point out that the same driver also has to be prepared for the consequences that may result.
“He still takes the responsibility on himself,” Stewart said. “He has that right. He has the choice to do that. He’s in control of his car. But if he ever turns down across in front of me again, I don’t care what lap it is, he won’t make it through the other end of it. If I didn’t hit the chip, he wouldn’t have made it through Turn 1 to begin with. I’m tired of these guys doing that stuff; especially out of a kid that’s been griping about everybody else, and then he does that the next week. I mean, he’s sent Denny (Hamlin) to the hospital and screwed our day up. He’s talked the talk, but he hasn’t walked the walk yet. He’s always got his crew guys walking the walk for him.”
Penske defended Logano when he spoke with USA TODAY late Sunday night and even took a few shots at the driver he offered a ride in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“I'm 150 percent behind my driver, and I think he’s a real star on the team,” Penske said. “I've watched (Stewart) from the spotter's stand quite a bit, and I think Stewart is one of the best in the business at blocking. Anyone is going to protect the bottom (lane). I think his comments are unwarranted, quite honestly. I think we should move on.
"All the things said after the race by everyone probably light up a fire. I've seen people race by side like that many times. When you're racing side by side, and someone slips up, you have an accident.
"I stand by what I said about Joey the other day. He's a great driver for a team trying to win races."
Penske also expressed concern for Hamlin, who has since been transported back to his home in North Carolina to recover from the back fracture.
At the center of all this controversy is Logano, who is the fourth driver to take over the Shell-Pennzoil No. 22 in the last three seasons after Kurt Busch was fired in 2011 for a number of angry incidents on and off the racetrack. A.J. Allmendinger had the ride at the start of the 2012 season but failed a NASCAR drug test. Three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. completed the season in that car on an interim basis before Logano was given the ride this season.
“I had to throw the block there -- that was a race for the lead,” Logano said. “I felt if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race, so I was just trying to protect the spot I had. I was actually pedaling, because I couldn't keep the 18 (Kyle Busch) aligned. I was actually faster than the 18 getting our tires hooked up. And then I'm trying to stagger myself making sure I don't beat him to the line and then I had to block the 14 because I was pedaling it.
“I'll talk to him, and we'll see what happens. I think he finished decent. We'll just talk about it some more.”
When asked if he was willing to talk to Logano, Stewart said: “Hell, no. If he wants to talk about it, we’ll talk about it. After he threw the water bottle at me like a little girl, we’ll go at it now.”
As for the incident that sent Hamlin hard into the wall, Logano hinted that Hamlin’s actions this season may have been a factor.
“He probably shouldn't have done what he did last week, so that's what he gets,” Logano said.
NASCAR officials have decided no penalties will be issued to either Logano or Stewart, claiming it was all part of the “Boys, Have at It” policy that went into place a few seasons ago.
“All of the post-race incidents, a few years ago, we backed away from micromanaging drivers' emotions,” said NASCAR Sprint Cup Director John Darby. “You would hope in today's world that if somebody didn't win a race, they would be upset about it for whatever reason. That's what our drivers do is they try to win races. So the emotions that follow a race sometime, as long as stuff and keep in mind, there's the checks and the balances, but a couple of drivers at the end of the race arguing a little bit doesn't create a foul in our world today. The crews did a great job of managing their drivers to make sure that it didn't cross the line to where there was physical violence or anything like that, and that's what you would hope.
“That's just another example of the state of competition in NASCAR racing, and the disappointments that come sometimes when you don't win the race. I don't see any foul there at all. Just wanting to make sure we had a small handful of drivers that did come down pit road, we directed the cars on the racetrack to make sure we had plenty of clear path to dispatch the necessary emergency units to the 11 car (Hamlin), and there was obviously some confusion among a few of the drivers. We just wanted to try to find out if it was miscommunicated from their spotters or what happened. I think we're pretty comfortable with figuring out what happened there, as well.
“If two guys get in a hell of a fight, yeah, we'll have to react. But a couple guys blowing off some steam and slapping at the air isn't going to get anybody in a whole lot of trouble.”
One thing is certain: the Auto Club 400 created a major buzz within the sport.
“Right now, I can tell you there are not any conversations internally inside of NASCAR to look at blocking as a violation or a penalty-type situation that some other forms of motorsports do,” Darby said. “With Sprint Cup Series racing, obviously being far above a lot of the other forms of racing as far as competitiveness, we are going to have close racing, and close, side-by-side racing, and we are going to have close front-to-rear racing, and there's a lot of that that's just part of competition.
“You know, as good as the racing has been and as exciting as it's been, I don't think we need to jump in the middle of any of that and screw it up.”