TALLADEGA, Ala. – By Tony Stewart's standards, his tongue-in-cheek assessment of NASCAR's latest wreckfest at Talladega was tame stuff. But his four-minute Q&A following Sunday's race was vintage Smoke, and boy did he deliver.
The three-time NASCAR champion deadpanned his way through a flurry of questions about his afternoon, which essentially ended when he was caught in a nine-car accident four laps from the finish. Before the accident, Stewart said he had twice run out of gas and spent the entire race keeping one eye on his gauges to make sure his engine didn't overheat because of NASCAR's rules at restrictor-plate tracks.
"I call it a successful day," a smirking Stewart said.
He never broke character, answering each of the 13 questions with dripping sarcasm.
Among the gems:
— "I'm upset that we didn't crash more cars. I feel bad if I don't spend at least $150,000 in torn-up race cars going back to the shop. We definitely have to do a better job with that."
— "I had a blast. It would have been a lot more fun if I could have gotten caught up in one more wreck. If I could have done that, it would have been perfect."
— "The racing was awesome. It's fun to be able to race and have to watch the gauges at the same time. It makes us as drivers have to do so much more."
— "I think if we haven't crashed at least 50 percent of the field by the end of the race, we need to extend the race until we at least crash 50 percent of the cars."
Stewart saved his best material for his parting shot, which came as an answer to which style of racing — pack racing or the two-car tandem — he preferred for Talladega and Daytona. His suggestion was redesigning the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway into a figure 8.
"That is going to be my vote next week, we make it a figure 8," he said. "And/or we can stop at halfway, make a break, and turn around and go backwards the rest of the way. Then with 10 to go, we split the field in half and half go the regular direction and half of them go backwards."
Well, that would at least be exciting to watch.
And that's in large part what has Stewart so upset. He's heard the grumbling the last six weeks about the current state of NASCAR racing, which has been marked by uncharacteristically clean races and long green-flag runs.
Before Sunday, the last multicar accident was at Martinsville, five races ago. There have been very few yellow flags of late, and many of the caution periods have been for nothing more than debris.
While that's actually racing at its purest form, it's missing the punch needed to spark fan interest. And so begins the debate over what fans really want to see: racin' or wreckin'?
The very notion that fans want to see more accidents is offensive to drivers, and Stewart has made his position clear the last two races. He rebuked a reporter at Richmond for asking if Stewart was "amazed" there had been no accidents in three consecutive races. Although the dressing down was mild for Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. still had to cover his face to conceal his laughter while Stewart spoke.
So he was ready again on Sunday, derisively insinuating several times that the fans were let down by not enough accidents to "fill the quota for Talladega and NASCAR."
"It's not fair to these fans for them to not see more wrecks than that and more torn-up cars," he said. "We still had over half the cars running at the end, and it shouldn't be that way."
It's not necessarily accurate to claim race fans want wrecks. As Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure was released from an Alabama hospital after suffering a concussion and internal bruising in an accident Saturday at Talladega, the very notion that anyone would root for crashes is particularly inappropriate.
Yet wrecks are featured heavily in the marketing strategies of most track promoters, and a pit-road confrontation between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch at last year's race at Darlington has been used to advertise Saturday night's return to the South Carolina speedway. Neither Harvick nor Busch was impressed with the campaign.
Purists — and particularly drivers — prefer clean racing, and Stewart is annoyed that some find this recent stretch of incident-free racing boring. It's part of an ongoing disconnect between the competitors in NASCAR and the people who drive attendance and television ratings. Very few drivers wanted anything changed at Bristol Motor Speedway, but track owner Bruton Smith is currently grinding the track as a response to fans not showing up to the March race.
"I've said all along that as a race car driver, you walk a fine line between being a daredevil and a chess player," Brad Keselowski said after Sunday's victory. "When we come here, we're probably more daredevils. You look at it as a whole. You hope that you can split the middle of the two. That's what racing is.
"I look at chess matches, not a lot of them on TV, sure as hell don't get 100,000 people to come to the match. So we've got to balance those things."
The balance is in providing excitement, and if it doesn't come from wrecks, then it's got to come from story lines. The drivers must find a way to get people talking, whether it's through controversy and drama, or personalities and rivalries. All of it sells, and all of it leads to Monday morning chatter at the water cooler.
So here's something to think about: Sure, Stewart was involved in a wreck at Talladega. But it's his response to it — not the accident itself — that's got everyone talking.