BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Tony Stewart gripped the helmet not with one hand, but two.
With a slinging heave that would have impressed an Olympic hammer thrower, he lofted the headpiece angrily toward the oncoming green and white race car. It clunked off the front end of the No. 17 Ford as thousands of sets of eyes watched, and thousands of voices roared in approval.
Welcome to Bristol Motor Speedway.
*Video: Stewart flings helmet at Kenseth after wreck
You can change it, resurface it, grind it down, make all kinds of alterations in an attempt to influence the racing on this famous half-mile, but it's always been more about emotion than concrete. Track owner Bruton Smith brought in heavy machinery to shave off the top groove, trying to force drivers to punt one another if they wanted to pass. While the approach didn't quite work -- the high line rubbered in, unexpectedly, and eventually proved the fastest way around the race track -- the end result was as-hoped-for nonetheless, an array of tempers and accusations that electrified the announced crowd of 145,000 and injected new life into a facility trying to recapture some of its past glory.
Those that were here will long remember Saturday, which began with famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer asking the assembled masses if they were ready to rumble, and was highlighted by a pair of NASCAR heavyweights doing just that on the race track. Stewart and Matt Kenseth barreled through the fourth turn door-to-door on Lap 333, neither of them relenting, and they both paid the price when their cars started sliding toward the inside wall. Stewart climbed out of his wrecked vehicle and waited on Kenseth to come back down pit road, then slung his helmet at his adversary and plunked the Roush driver's car right on the nose.
Those are the kinds of moments that made Bristol, a place built on the reputation of nights like the one in 2004 when Ward Burton threw his shoes at Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliott Sadler punched an ambulance, and even the mild-mannered Jimmie Johnson showed a certain central digit to Robby Gordon. There's no way to engineer a saga like that, even with all the grinders and pavers in East Tennessee. That something similar broke out Saturday, on the heels of such-ballyhooed changes and with so many eyes fixated on this big cereal bowl, may have been as much coincidence as anything else. But it happened, and people are buzzing about Bristol again, even if Stewart is mad at Kenseth and Danica Patrick is mad at Regan Smith and so many drivers had crumpled pieces of sheet metal hanging off their cars.
"I checked up twice to not run over him, and I learned my lesson there," Stewart growled. "I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year. Every chance I've got."
"That's fine," Kenseth said later. "Look, Tony is probably the greatest race-car driver in the garage. I don't have anything bad to say about Tony. On the race track for year and years and years, we've had tons of respect for each other. And for whatever reason this year, he ran me off the track at [Sonoma], same story, and cost me seven spots in the finishing order. And Indy, he was mad because he said I blocked him, and I asked for five minutes of his time to clear the air, and he wouldn't give them to me. Just pretty much got cussed out. ... So, I'm just going to race him the same way he would race me. He showed me how he was going to race me down there. I just did the same thing on the other end."
Would that confrontation have taken place had Smith left the track intact? Difficult to say. But it's hard to draw a direct connection, either. Before the machinery was brought in to whittle down the banking at the top, Bristol was essentially a one-groove race track. Event winner Denny Hamlin said Bristol is basically still a one-groove race track -- except that groove climbed from the bottom to the top after the high line unexpectedly attracted all kinds of grip and turned crazy fast. " There's nothing [Smith] is going to do that's going to make us run the bottom if it's not the fastest way around the track," he said. "It was the same thing. We were all running in a line and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around."
And, yet, the fervor that for so long has been such a hallmark of Bristol was back -- something evident by how jacked the crowd was in pre-race ceremonies, and extended to the competition on the race track. "I think there was a little more intensity tonight than normal," third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said. While the cage-rattling, bump-and-run move may be a thing of the past here, competitors were sliding past opponents like tectonic plates grinding past one another. Contact was up, cautions were up, tempers were up. After Smith banged Patrick's car to ruin what might have been a top-20 run, the driver of the No. 10 took a cue from her boss by removing her helmet and stalking up the banking -- but wagged her finger at her adversary rather than hurtle her headgear.
"The team did a great job and everything was running really smoothly," Patrick said. "So it's a shame that we lost that. But you know, Bristol is a place where you find out who's playing fair and who's not."
Nothing, though, compared to the incident involving Stewart and Kenseth, which began with close racing between the drivers two corners earlier. Then, Kenseth said, he lifted off the accelerator to prevent both of them from wrecking. When they stormed through Turn 4 side-by-side, the Roush driver was expecting the same courtesy. "If he would have stayed around the bottom for two laps and passed me clean, I just probably would have lifted and let him up the line," he said. "But ... the first shot he had, he just went straight like I wasn't even there."
When Kenseth rolled down pit road and saw Stewart gripping his helmet, he knew what was coming next. "I was expecting it," he said. "I was expecting it, and it didn't really bother me. It wasn't going to hurt it any worse."
Driving past, Johnson caught a glimpse of Stewart preparing for launch. "I saw him lingering, kind of waiting with his gear," said the eventual race runner-up. "I figured something was going to happen. I heard he had a good toss on it. I know he impressed our crew. They were all talking about it. They said he had a good arm on him. He had a good throw, and hit it dead center."
And with his one mighty heave, produced the signature image of Saturday night at Bristol, one that even eclipsed Hamlin overtaking Carl Edwards to win his third race of the season, tying him for most on the Sprint Cup tour. It's difficult to look at that ground-down upper groove and believe it was solely responsible for all that happened, particularly given that the alteration didn't necessarily have the intended effect. But in the end, it didn't really matter. Whether by strategy, fate, or grand coincidence, the Bristol everyone loves so much returned, its splendor reflected in Stewart's black helmet hurtling through the sky.
And about that helmet ....
"I don't give a crap," Stewart said. "The hell with the helmet."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Tony Stewart
- Matt Kenseth
- Bristol Motor Speedway