Tony Stewart pretty much dared any Sprint Cup driver to block him with his antics on and off the race track Sunday at Infineon Raceway.
Stewart dumped Brian Vickers for blocking him during the race and said afterward that even if drivers wreck him in retaliation, as Vickers did, those that block him will pay the price.
Now the big question is will anyone take the bait? And will Stewart really risk a chance to make the Chase For The Sprint Cup by getting into an on-track fracas with other drivers?
There’s a good chance that Stewart is going to have to back up his ultimatum. And if Stewart wrecks someone, he can expect retaliation in return, either from the driver he dumped or another driver caught up in the chain reaction of the melee.
Stewart, currently 12th in the standings, can’t afford many more 39th-place finishes such as the one he suffered at Infineon after the shove from Vickers. But Stewart might not even care much if this costs him a spot in the Chase. His goal is to be contending for a championship – just getting in the Chase can’t be good enough for the two-time champ.
Maybe spending the Chase being the blocking police would be more fun than grinding his way through the Chase when he doesn’t appear to have a legitimate chance to win.
Then again, as a competitor, Stewart likely would have a hard time stomaching not making the Chase. And in his quest for sponsors, not making the Chase doesn’t help.
So Stewart could find himself in a quandary. If he thinks he won’t be blocked because of what he did to Vickers, he’s likely going to be disappointed, especially at a tight track like New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where the series races in a couple of weeks.
Here’s some guys who won’t hesitate to mess with Stewart:
• Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya is as aggressive and bull-headed as Stewart. They’ve had their run-ins in the past. They’re good friends, but if Montoya can hold off Stewart by blocking him, he won’t hesitate to do it.
• Brad Keselowski. If Keselowski feels he’s got a car that matches Stewart, he’ll make himself hard to pass. And he dumped Montoya last week for running into him.
• Joey Logano. Logano can’t afford to have “Smoke” smoke him on the track as he has to prove he is worthy of the ride that Stewart left at Joe Gibbs Racing.
• Jeff Gordon. Gordon says he has had his run-ins with Stewart and doesn’t have them anymore. Still, Gordon’s a driver who doesn’t want to rely on a wild card to make the Chase. He wants bonus points for his two wins for the Chase and to earn those, he needs to finish in the top 10.
• Kurt Busch. Busch isn’t a big fan of Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart’s team is a Hendrick affiliate. And Busch isn’t a guy who will let Stewart push him around.
Those five aren’t the only drivers that Stewart could wind up spinning out of his way if he wants to make good on his promise.
If Stewart intends to be the blocking police, he will need to make judgment calls. If someone just creeps over the line, he’ll want to let that driver go.
But if a driver goes way over the line (like, let’s say, Kyle Busch in a Lexus sports car over the line), then Stewart needs to take matters into his own hands. He can’t step too far back from his statements Sunday or all of his threats will be shallow.
The bottom line is that Stewart’s actions Sunday have him playing the role of intimidator. He has talked in the last couple of weeks about a lack of respect and then on Sunday he let his driving do the talking before issuing a postrace ultimatum.
Now he’ll find out if people respect his words. Or if they’ll send him a message that he hasn’t been running good enough in recent years to play the role of intimidator.