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Stewart's 'dead-weight' remains a mystery

27 September 2011

When Tony Stewart was standing in victory lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, he was asked what had changed to put him back at the top after such a frustrating season up till the Chase cut-off.

"We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week, so it made it a lot easier," he responded to the pit lane reporter on national TV. "It's been a big weight lifted off our shoulders. Just sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it has definitely helped."

So what exactly was Stewart referring to when he said "dead weight"?

His crew chief, Darian Grubb, certainly had no idea. "I've heard a lot of people talk about it, but I haven't heard what he was talking about," he said at the post-race press conference. "I know he went and did a lot of dirt racing and had a lot of fun this week, kind of unloaded everything. Maybe it was a lot of dead weight off his mind."

No one was buying that one. Surely "dead weight" related to a person - had someone been fired from the team?

"Not that I know of," said Grubb. "Maybe he's talking about me and I just don't know it yet!" he added, getting a good laugh from the assembled media.

It seemed that the only person who knew what Smoke was talking about was Smoke, so when Tony Stewart showed up for his own post-race interview it was the first question he was asked by the press.

"We're just going to leave it at that," said Stewart, bluntly.

"Could we ask if it that was ...?"

"You can't ask anything. It is what it is. That's all it was is what you said. That's where we'll leave it," said Stewart, firmly closing the door on any follow-ups.

He did confirm that the comment did not refer to any personnel changes at Stewart/Haas. Darian Grubb was presumably relieved in the sidelines to know that his pink slip wasn't winging its way through the mail to him after all. Stewart's agent was also at the race looking distinctly employed as well, so it wasn't that either.

With Stewart known to be notoriously prickly with the media when riled, no one else pressed on with that line of questioning - but that didn't stop the speculation continuing afterwards both in the press room and with fans online.

The favourite theory is that it related to a break-up with his girlfriend Jessica Zemken, a racing driver in World of Outlaws and Sprint cars, and plenty of consoling messages on her Facebook fan page seemed to make the assumption that the jab had indeed been directed her way.

Stewart would be right to want some privacy for his private life and be annoyed if the media started poking its nose in to matters that didn't concern them. However, the two time NASCAR Cup champion should know better than to use national TV airtime to make barbed comments that he just knows will tweak journalists' interest and leave them scrabbling for more details: if he'd wanted it kept private, he should have kept it private.

It's not as if the NASCAR media entourage isn't unusually respectful of its drivers' private lives - to an extent that raised eyebrows when no one reported on the breakdown of Kurt Busch's five-year marriage to wife Eva earlier this year. That was even though it was common knowledge in the NASCAR paddock, as Eva had been a regular attendee at races until the start of this season when she didn't appear for Busch's Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel victories at Daytona. The media nonetheless decided that it was nothing to do with their coverage of the sport and simply ignored it.

The story only finally broke when Busch was joined in victory lane at Infineon Raceway by a woman later identified as Patricia Driscoll, who hugged and kissed him in the televised celebrations after he won the Sonoma road race. Several reporters felt in the circumstances that they had to explain the context of the images, as it was clear that the woman was not the well-known Eva Busch.

Subsequently the question asked was whether Busch's struggles early in the year were related to the situation with separating from his wife, while his mid-season boost was influenced by a happier personal life.

Now with Stewart's comment about his revitalised Chase form being down to dropping "dead weight" - if it really is related to his private life - it will make it increasingly difficult for reporters to agree that private lives are really none of their business in the future if they're shown to be hard-wired to on-track success.


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