Tony Stewart has won 41 times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But in the NASCAR media center, he's won far more battles than that.
As a member of the print media, there really is no winning with Stewart. Sure, there are times when he can be the funny, charming guy who fans adore at driver question-and-answer sessions. And there are times when he quietly and civilly responds to queries from reporters.
But depending on the day, the mood, the weather, the stock market, the price of gas or a number of other things, dealing with Tony Stewart can be difficult enough to make someone question their existence.
The latest Stewart controversy is relatively mild, but intriguing nonetheless. After winning Sunday's New Hampshire race, Stewart got out of the car and made a mysterious comment about getting rid of some "dead weight" in his personal life that has helped spark his late-season turnaround.
It was the kind of question that begged a follow-up: What did you mean by that comment, Tony?
But when reporters tried to ask, Stewart wasn't having any of it. He shut the door and essentially moved on.
For the media who has dealt with Stewart before, such a response was entirely expected. Ultimately, raising one's hopes about a reasonable answer from Stewart in a case like that is a lost cause.
Still, it's both frustrating and disappointing.
Like many others, I once had hopes of a good, professional relationship with Stewart. When I joined the now-defunct NASCAR Scene magazine in 2007 and thus got on the racing beat full time, I was naïve enough to think if I treated a driver with respect and asked good questions, I would get respect in return.
That notion proved to be incorrect in many cases.
I figured all the reporters Stewart sparred with were just going about their jobs the wrong way. Surely, I could do better by bringing a reasonable, fair approach he would recognize and appreciate.
As you can guess, that didn't work. I soon realized most of the reporters before me had already tried a similar approach and discovered the same thing: Unless you lob Stewart softballs about his beloved Eldora Speedway, you risk potential blowback on any NASCAR-related question – no matter how innocent it may be.
There's no arguing with Stewart about what is a legitimate question and what is not. In his mind, if he doesn't feel like answering it, it's not legitimate. Period.
Likewise, there is no reliable formula or method to getting a good answer from Stewart. Ask Stewart a question in a typical "behind the hauler" media session, and you're likely to get one of three outcomes: 1) He will answer the question; 2) He will give a short non-answer that indicates his unwillingness to answer the question; 3) He will dislike the question or the questioner enough to add an insult with his non-answer.
I'd like to tell you such incidents were easy to brush off and that I've had thick skin every time. But that would be a lie. On occasion, it's tough not to take Stewart's barbs personally.
For example: In the summer of 2009, Stewart took such exception to one of my questions that he decided to start a "Gluck Retirement Fund" and raise money so I could go away. He (jokingly?) offered $50,000.
I tried to laugh it off and take it as an example of Stewart's twisted humor the first week he brought it up, but after he won the '09 Watkins Glen race and immediately resumed the talk, I was a bit miffed.
He interrupted his own winner's press conference at the Glen and handed his Victory Lane hat to a public relations representative with instructions to "pass the hat" among the media (like at church) to raise funds for my exit from the sport.
To my surprise, my peers contributed about $28 (some jerk threw in a $5 bill!), a Twizzler and a pencil. After the press conference, Stewart walked by my work station and tossed the hat – with the money in it – onto the table next to my computer (I didn't really want to keep the money, so I donated it to Victory Junction Gang Camp the next week; I still have the hat).
Anyway, I was a little put off after that, but the incident especially bothered me when I actually lost my job a few months later. That my newfound unemployment was likely good news to Stewart was cause for increased angst.
When I joined SB Nation and was given the freedom to write about whatever I wanted, I figured I just wouldn't write about or deal with Stewart. Ignoring him would save me a big headache, I figured.
But this job doesn't work that way. The media cannot boycott a difficult driver, because the readers are the customers. And a lot of our customers are Tony Stewart fans.
Stewart is one of the top three most popular drivers in NASCAR (along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon) and is always cheered at driver introductions. His fans are well aware of his difficult nature and they don't care. Because fans consider Stewart a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, and because people generally don't like "the media" as a whole (approval ratings similar to lawyers), Smoke's supporters don't mind his controversies.
As a reporter, the best option is to just take what Stewart dishes and deal with it. Any perceived complaints (like this column, most likely) are categorized as media "whining" and only make the journalists look foolish for being sensitive.
Even though that's probably true, I still found myself getting angry last year whenever Stewart would call the media "idiots," lob insults at "the people in this room" (meaning the media center) or rip a local reporter for asking a question that showed a lack of expertise about NASCAR.
But then came the postseason banquet week in Las Vegas last season, and my perception of Stewart changed. After an industry cocktail party, a small group of media casually tossed out an invitation to join us at an upscale Chinese restaurant for dinner. Stewart didn't seem particularly interested.
About 10 minutes after we were seated, however, Stewart came walking into the restaurant and found a spot at the head of the table. We all proceeded to have an enjoyable meal for the next couple hours.
Stewart was a fantastic dinner companion. He was self-effacing, funny, humble and downright pleasant. For the first time, I could see why his supporters often cited what a "good guy" he was in his charitable efforts and life away from the track. He even picked up the dinner tab for the half-dozen of us.
Maybe he's not such a bad guy, I thought. Maybe I've had the wrong impression of him.
But of course, then this season arrived. And as soon as the weekly grind and constant media obligations resumed, Stewart was the guy many of us have come to know and not love.
The feeling seems mutual. Any goodwill from Stewart toward the media appears to have vanished and, in fact, the driver seems to be on the warpath.
He shreds reporters for seemingly no reason, fires insults at the media before a question has even been asked (and this after a victory, no less) and generally seems content to be discontent.
An unhappy Stewart is often a winning Stewart, though, and so he's gone to Victory Lane for each of the past two weeks.
Perhaps a driver who seems to perform at his best when in the midst of the biggest storms actually likes the drama. And just when you think he's too much to handle, Stewart surprises everyone with a gesture of kindness.
If that's the case, reporters are just pawns in Smoke's bigger game. And so far, he's playing all of us perfectly en route to what could be his third Sprint Cup championship.