Tony Stewart wants to be NASCAR's moral compass, but he won't be until he stops throwing temper tantrums and bullying people.
Upset with the way Joey Logano raced him late in Sunday's wild Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Stewart shoved Logano on pit road. The two started flailing at each other before Logano threw a water bottle. It was only part of a dizzying finish that saw Kyle Busch victorious and Logano get "even'' with former teammate Denny Hamlin as they raced for the win, bouncing off each other and crashing on the last lap. Hamlin spent the night in a hospital for observation after complaining of lower back pain.
GALLERY: Memorable NASCAR confrontations
Stewart contends that Logano is a hypocrite for complaining about how other drivers have raced -- Logano confronted Hamlin last week at Bristol -- and then doing something similar to Stewart on Sunday.
Logano's infraction, in Stewart's mind, was blocking him on a restart with 11 laps to go. Logano spun his tires, allowing Stewart to get a jump, and then darted down the track to the white line, forcing Stewart below it and near the grass. Unlike at Daytona and Talladega, there is no rule prohibiting drivers from racing on the apron. Stewart let up, losing track position and any chance to contend for the win. He finished 22nd.
"If he ever turns down across in front of me again, I don't care what lap it is, he won't make it through the other end of it,'' Stewart fumed. "If I didn't hit the chip, he wouldn't have made it through Turn 1 to begin with. I'm tired of these guys doing that stuff, especially out of a kid that's been griping about everybody else, and then he does that the next week. I mean he's sent Denny to the hospital and screwed our day up.''
The truth is that Stewart is showing his age. Veterans have always complained about how younger drivers race, how they didn't understand track etiquette, how they were too aggressive and showed little respect. Sometimes the veterans could change the younger drivers' behavior, but often it has been the veterans who have had to adapt to a new style of racing.
As NASCAR works to keep the competition even closer, any opportunity to pass or defend a position becomes paramount no matter when it takes place in a race.
So expect to see more blocking.
That will keep Stewart grumpy. He has been one of the most vocal critics in NASCAR about blocking even as he's acknowledged that he's had to do it himself.
? Stewart's attempt to block Michael Waltrip on the last lap at Talladega last fall triggered a 25-car crash that forced Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss two races because of concussion symptoms.
? Stewart wrecked Brian Vickers at Sonoma in 2011 because Vickers was blocking him. Vickers returned the favor later in the race. Afterward, Stewart said: "If guys want to block, then they are going to get wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it.''
? Kyle Busch attempted to block Stewart on the last lap at Daytona in July 2009 when they made contact. Busch crashed. Stewart won. Afterward, Stewart said he didn't "feel as much gratification'' winning that way.
Stewart also said that night: "He can't just sit there and let us make a move like that and not try to defend it.''
The difference with Logano's move on Sunday is that it came with more than 20 miles to go instead of half a mile. Does that mean Logano, or any driver, has less of a right to block?
"Racing for the lead, going for the win,'' Logano said. "That's what you've got to do.''
It was clear how important track position was throughout the race -- Stewart jumped to the lead after an earlier two-tire pit stop -- so with 11 laps to go, everyone is going to be pushing the limits on the restart and driving like it's the last lap because no one knows if that will be the last restart and their final chance to gain a few more positions.
Does that make Logano's move justified?
Yes, but it also means that he will have to deal with the consequences.
One would expect Stewart to seek a payback at some point, and Hamlin likely feels the same way after spending a night in the hospital.
As for Busch, he said he was only able to take the lead on the last lap because, "It got a little dirty there at the end.
"Just side drafting each other. It's hard racing, but it's also dirty sometimes, but you are going for the win. So it's nothing I'm sure other people wouldn't do to me. It looked like there through (turns) three and four that Joey went to the bottom but didn't quite get all the way down there and knew that Denny was going to have the run on the outside and slid up a little bit.''
With Martinsville next on the schedule (after a weekend off), it would seem to be the right time for both Hamlin and Stewart to make amends. Then again, Hamlin is so good at Martinsville that he might not want to play games with Logano because he'll be focused on the win. As for Stewart? He's been hot and cold there. If he's having a bad day, he might just make it bad for Logano, too.
That leads to the issue of what should NASCAR do if either retaliates against Logano at Martinsville or later? Since Stewart has called his shot, would he deserve a penalty? Will "Boys have at it'' be what officials rely on?
Or, as a friend told me, should either Stewart or Hamlin pay Logano back, what NASCAR will do is simply throw a caution flag.
What's certain is that this isn't over.
After the pit road confrontation, Stewart had more to say about Logano.
"He is a tough guy on pit road as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it,'' Stewart said. "Until then he's a scared little kid. Then he wants to sit there and throw a water bottle at me. He is going to learn a lesson.
"He can run his mouth on Twitter and stuff all he wants. I've got plenty of people that are going to watch for that. It's time he learns a lesson. He's run his mouth long enough. He has sat there and done this double standard and he's nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to work in his life. He's going to learn (from) us working guys that had to work our way up how it works."
Typical Tony. His way is the only way. It would seem his compass is broken.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (last week's PR: 2nd)-- Gained 11 spots in the last 20 laps to finish second. He's now placed in the top 10 in all five races this season, the best season-opening streak of his career. No driver has gained more positions (26) in the final 10 percent of the races this season.
2. Kyle Busch (6th) -- His victory at Auto Club Speedway marked his third consecutive top-five finish. He's led 208 laps during that streak.
3. Brad Keselowski (1st) -- Had to overcome an engine change that forced him to start at the rear and he slapped the wall after running through oil early in the race. Those issues made it hard to get track position for much of the race. He eventually did, but fell from fifth to 23rd in the final 20 laps.
4. Kasey Kahne (3rd) -- Gained eight spots in the final 10 laps to finish ninth for this third consecutive top-10 finish.
5. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- It has been feast or famine with this fast team. He's finished seventh or better (seventh Sunday) in three races this year. In the other two, he was fast but failed to finish.
6. Jimmie Johnson (4th) -- Finished 12th despite being way off during most of the race on the car's handling and running outside the top 20 at times. Clearly the team's worst race of the year, yet he recovered well, gaining 12 spots in the final 20 laps.
7. Denny Hamlin (7th) -- Battling for the win on the last lap until contact with Joey Logano caused him to wreck and finish 25th.
8. Carl Edwards (unranked) -- Fourth-place run was his third top-five finish of the season.
9. Greg Biffle (unranked) -- Sixth-place finish Sunday marked his second top-10 finish of the season. He's placed no worse than 17th in any race this season.
10. Paul Menard (9th) -- Finished eighth at Auto Club for his third consecutive top-10 finish.