Where there's Smoke …

Where there's Smoke …
By Ricky Craven, Yahoo Sports
April 18, 2007

Ricky Craven
Yahoo Sports
Now what do I do?

I am in a tough situation this week, trying to determine if I should apologize, retract or take the big gamble and "double down."

My dilemma is this: my introduction as an analyst for Yahoo! Sports was a prediction that Tony Stewart would win the 2007 Nextel Cup championship. My basis for this was the combination of him being motivated by missing last year's cut, as well as Stewart being at the sweet spot in his career where he has valuable experience and much success, combined with the continued drive and desire for more.

But my primary reason for choosing Stewart was his refreshed attitude and the apparent enjoyment he expressed all during Speedweeks at Daytona. This appears to have eroded, which brings me to my dilemma.

Stewart's comments following last weekend's race in Texas reflect his frustration with having a worse start to the year than expected, and the toll those same expectations can take on a driver emotionally.

Stewart was quoted as saying, "I'm ready to retire as soon as I can get enough money saved where I can retire, I'd be more than happy to step away."

This doesn't actually surprise me coming from Tony. I see this as him simply venting rather than being any type of proclamation regarding his Nextel Cup timetable.

Still, this is a contrast to the attitude with which Stewart started the season, as well as a contrast to how Stewart has connected with the fans with his ceremonial fence climb following each win. Ironically, it may have been the fans that led Tony down this path Sunday. He mentioned how disheartening it is to be booed by 180,000 fans and how this had taken away much of the fun of racing.

I expect the fans were probably expressing their displeasure with Dale Earnhardt Jr. essentially being taken out the race and felt Stewart should share some responsibility.

The price an athlete pays for being judged by a paying customer (i.e. the fan) is an interesting topic. I have been on the receiving end of fan support during my career, especially at every event I raced at New Hampshire International Speedway, considered my home track. I was the beneficiary of overwhelming New England diehard support and found it very inspiring.

I have not, however, experienced the reversal, which is usually reserved primarily for a dominant athlete or team (or any player wearing pinstripes at Fenway Park). I would have to believe it would take its toll on me.

In fact, I witnessed the jeering of fans while riding in the back of the vehicle with Jeff Gordon during ceremonial prerace parade laps. I was appalled by the things I heard being shouted toward us as we made our way around the track. It affected me on a personal level because I know Jeff quite well, and know that he is a fine person. I found some comfort in watching how well he handled most of it, leaving me with a new appreciation for the extra burden a highly successful athlete bears.

Tony Stewart is another example of an exceptional athlete. Perhaps he could find comfort knowing he doesn't face the burden of being booed alone. Jimmie Johnson again joined the elite group a few weeks back in victory lane at Martinsville, and his membership renewal was a result of 25 nearly perfect laps while holding off a faster Gordon. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not exempt from this type of treatment. Following his Busch win at the expense of Carl Edwards at Michigan last year, Junior was booed.

As strange as it seems, being booed by the crowd is, in most cases, a confirmation of accomplishments in your respective field, and a compliment of sorts.

As it relates to Stewart's suggestion of retirement, I would not expect an impending announcement anytime soon. He is an asset to the sport, he continues to display the hunger and fire to compete and succeed, and he serves an important role in the garage area.

There are times when someone needs to be the voice for the sport or the drivers, and Tony has filled both roles well. You may not always agree with his message or the way in which he delivers it, but you should certainly appreciate his clarity.

I can relate to Tony when he implies that at some point he simply will have had enough. I found myself in this position in the summer of 2004. After winning two races with the Tide team in 2001 and 2003, the vulnerability of being a single-car team had caught up with us. The frustration of losing, as well the implications that go along with it, brought me to the decision a few years earlier than I would have liked.

But my situation was cushioned by the value of having three children at home to fill the void. Stewart's situation is quite different. No, he has not won in 2007, but he will. When he does, he could win several. In fact, getting into the Chase should be the primary focus of the driver of the No. 20. Once again he has the ability to challenge Jimmie Johnson like no other.

So it probably is clear now that I am doubling down on Tony Stewart. I have raced with several of today's Nextel Cup drivers and only a few can match his ability over the course of a season.

Those few, by the way, also get booed.

Ricky Craven is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR analyst. Send Ricky a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Wednesday, Apr 18, 2007 4:23 pm, EDT

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