HEDGER: The Long Look


VERNON, N.Y. — As the rest of the Sprint Cup world departed for home after a long week of testing on the newly paved Pocono Raceway surface and a very competitive 400-mile race on a hot, humid day, third-place finisher Tony Stewart blew out of the Poconos in the other direction, headed toward the unlikely destination of Vernon, N.Y.

Former driver and now ace crew chief Jimmy Carr and his gang had “the other” Office Depot No. 14 in the Utica-Rome Speedway pit area, prepped for action. And when qualifying for the UNOH All Star Sprints program began, it was as if Stewart had been there all afternoon with the other sprint car faithful, most of whom had traveled from the previous night’s program at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Speedway.

Stewart timed 19th in the 24-car field, then ran fifth in his heat behind Greg Hodnett, Tim Shaffer, Freddy Rahmer and 360 star Chuck Hebing. Afterward, the tired-looking Stewart allowed how he came looking for some fun but wasn’t sure he’d enjoy the rest of the program, as the track had come up slick and dusty in the hot afternoon sun and almost everyone was struggling to get around.

But unlike many other venues, the pitsiders and fans left the NASCAR hero alone and he huddled with Dale Blaney, Hebing and others, discussing conditions and setups like true racers everywhere. While the sprint car guys rank among the toughest, bravest racers anywhere, they are also the most respectful of each other, both on and off the track.

Hebing, for one, slid in next to Stewart as he rested between races and discussed his setup, offering the fact that he runs the speedway four times a year before describing an unusual but effective combination for the banked, gritty half-mile.

Whether Carr and Stewart changed their car to incorporate “The Cobra’s” setup is unknown. But Tony lined up 19th and went forward all night, eventually finishing fifth behind Shaffer, Jessica Zemken, Stevie Smith and Hodnett. He probably would have been sixth had not Blaney, who was far ahead of the field, lost an engine, but he was very competitive and certainly looked to be having fun.

Stewart is obviously a very talented driver, having won in anything he has ever driven, and he’s driven just about every type of car raced across the nation.

Other Cup stars might venture out to an asphalt late model race here or there for a large appearance fee, but you won’t find them winning with a Munchkin midget at an indoor show in the Midwest, at a World of Outlaws show in Canada or with the All Stars at Screven, Ga., on a 32-degree night in February.

And how many other Cup stars would even recognize a regional hero like Chuck Hebing instantly, much less respect his opinion on setups?

The TV personalities who bring us Sprint Cup racing on TV tell us repeatedly that the series features the greatest drivers in the world. And they are, to a great degree, correct. But change the term from “drivers” to “racers” and Tony Stewart clearly tops the field.

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