Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Sheriff and Smoke avoid ugly (but much-needed) NASCAR confrontation at Infineon Raceway

There were two races in the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.

The one that Kurt Busch won, nay, survived outrunning a field of drivers by outlasting 12 lead changes, five caution flags and, by the look of their battered cars afterward, several meteor showers.

The other one was Tony Stewart’s race against time to get back at Brian Vickers. It was tick, tock, damn the torpedoes. On Lap 37, Stewart purposely ran into the back of Vickers’ car and spun him out in Turn 11. On Lap 88, Vickers appeared to slow down and wait for Stewart to pass then intentionally spun the back end of Stewart’s car that wound up, embarrassingly, on top of tire barriers in Turn 11.

Both drivers drove their cars to the garage and almost two dozen members of the media, licking their notepads and microphones, huddled near Stewart’s car, anticipating a WEE battle royale once they both returned to the track to complete the 110-lap race.

This confrontation had cage match and YouTube written all over it. You had Stewart, nicknamed Smoke, sitting in his car, seemingly stewing to get back at the back of Vickers’ car. You had Vickers, sponsored by a high energy drink and nicknamed The Sheriff, getting revenge, though Vickers insists his nickname “involves a 50-caliber gun” and not seeing that justice prevails.

Nevertheless, it was a perfect Old West showdown setting for a fight to eventually break out and pump life into NASCAR’s sagging television ratings. There were expectations that a demolition derby duel would result. Vickers went back out on the track to get points. The assumption was Stewart was going back out to make a point at Sears Point.

Vickers had picked the wrong guy to wreck.

“I’ve gotten into a battle before with Tony Stewart and that’s not a guy I battle with anymore,” said three-time race winner Jeff Gordon, who finished second on Sunday. “He’s a great race car driver, he’s smart and he can get really mad.”

But Stewart didn’t have the guns – or the horsepower – to chase down Vickers. He was on the track for six minutes before slowly pulling back into the garage.

However, when Stewart climbed out of his car, he wasn’t livid. He tried to be logical about Vickers dumping him.

“It didn’t make sense to do it and I’m not going to tolerate it. I don’t race guys that way and I’m not going to let anybody race me that way,” Stewart said. “If they block, they get dumped every time. Plain and simple.”

Vickers response? Like Mike Singletary’s. Look at the film. Vickers said he had to slow down because of traffic in front of him in Turn 11 on Lap 37.

“He wrecked me and I wrecked him,” said Vickers, who had a big grin on his face when he climbed out of his car after smoking Smoke.

And that was the end of it. No harm. No foul language. No one threw any helmets, punches or insults. NASCAR officials were not called in to send them to the penalty box and the combatants went on their merry way to Daytona.

Vickers retaliated for being hit by Stewart and Stewart, as cool as the deodorant he endorses, understood.

“He made his bed at that moment and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said.

“He did what he had to do. I don’t blame him,” Stewart said of Vickers’ retaliation.

Darn. Just when a possible Stewart/Vickers confrontation seemed to be spinning out of control and into SportsCenter and the Speed Channel lore, cooler heads prevailed. Media focused on a possible fight – and not Kurt Busch’s finish – missed out.

Media were hoping for a hate crime, er, crash.

“I don’t know what kind of great sound bite you guys are looking for,” Vickers said. “I think you are all in shock because (Stewart) and I are being honest about this.”

Stewart, who has been known to blow a gasket over such incidences, was running around fifth at the time he crash landed the ass of his car on the tire barrier. He took a 39th-place finish that knocked him from 11th to 12th in the point standings.

Vickers, who was in the top three, finished 36th and remained in 26th in the point standings. His Red Bull-sponsored nostrils weren’t flaring when he stopped talking .

“The way I see it,” Vickers said, “we’re all square.”

Until next time.


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