Smoke's popularity on the rise
There is muffled glee inside the Tony Stewart camp. It's about more than his being the first owner/driver to lead the points in 17 years and the first to win a race in 11.
It's pride about a significant undercurrent in NASCAR: merchandising -- "souvenir sales," in NASCAR business-speak.
In it, Stewart has pulled alongside and is challenging Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has dominated this race since his father died.
By some measures, Stewart is actually ahead by a bumper.
Jackets, caps and T-shirts are important not only because they mean big to enormous extra income, but also because they tell you a lot about who the most popular drivers really are.
It's one thing to mark a ballot or click on a button, but putting down hard-earned cash during these hard times is a stronger statement.
Since late May, Stewart has led all drivers in merchandising through NASCAR.com's Superstore, both his team and NASCAR's marketing department confirm.
"After his All-Star win [on May 16], Tony did surpass Junior on a weekly basis," said Tom Sullivan, chief publicist for NASCAR's Charlotte division, on Wednesday. "Then just recently, with his other win [at Pocono on June 7], he did the same."
Again this week, "Tony is still up by about 1.5 percent [over Earnhardt] in the Superstore," Sullivan said.
At the tracks, Stewart has taken the lead from Earnhardt in sales per trailer, according to his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
The team uses the "per trailer" caveat because Earnhardt "has five souvenir trailers to Stewart's two," SHR chief publicist Mike Arning wrote in an e-mail response to my query. "As a result, Junior is still the overall merchandise leader simply because he has three more trailers than Stewart. But Stewart's trailers are [each] far more profitable "
There is some fender-rubbing going on. Mike Davis, Earnhardt's right-hand confidant and publicist, e-mailed that "year-to-date, Dale Jr. is clearly number one in total souvenir sales."
Nobody is arguing that. All agree that Earnhardt remains No. 1 year-to-date and overall.
So in this race this year, Earnhardt had led the most laps. That doesn't mean Stewart isn't mounting a charge, looking left (Superstore), looking right (per-trailer sales)
Anecdotally, more than an hour after Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, I noticed Stewart and Earnhardt merchandise trailers sitting near each other behind the main grandstands. The crowd around Stewart's trailer appeared to be about 50 percent larger than that around Earnhardt's.
A NASCAR official at the race, who asked to remain anonymous for neutrality's sake, confirmed that he too noticed the "striking" size of the crowds of customers around Stewart's trailers.
This is not the first time Earnhardt has briefly lost the lead in some categories, Davis said, pointing out that "Jimmie Johnson was NASCAR.com Superstore's No. 1 the week he won the championship last year."
But a post-championship surge is what I'd call "front-runner sales," like fans who, for example, are currently on buying binges for Lakers or Penguins gear. They're the same ones who buy the caps of the latest Super Bowl or World Series winners. They're front-runners.
Two dismal slumps have hit the largely blue-collar Earnhardt legions hard this year: Earnhardt's own, on the tracks, and his fans' economic condition.
And Stewart's spike in sales -- Arning says he's up 37 percent this year over last -- is due in part to the fact that he has "new stuff," as merchandising people call it. His old Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot apparel doesn't work anymore. His ardent fans want the SHR, Old Spice and Office Depot logos.
"With his new sponsorship, Tony got a good start this season," Sullivan said. "But it's really performance on the track that has increased his sales."
Maybe it's more than performance and new stuff.
Maybe it's that Tony the Terrible, Stewart's volatile side, has been missing in action since he began forming the Stewart-Haas team last year.
For years now, Stewart has run in the top three or four in merchandise sales. But there was the occasional unscheduled pit stop -- the occasional temperamental outburst that kept him controversial.
Now the Smoke has cleared from the eyes of the masses.
Think about it: Stewart has always been humbler in success than he has in failure. And he has never been anything less than grateful for what he has.
Maybe that's because Stewart was out on his own at age 19, racing on whatever money he could raise from a day job and dirt-track winnings.
Tony the Terrible never came out until he found no reason to be grateful -- had been wronged, and/or narrowly missed a win because of some judgment call by NASCAR, or some foul-up by his crew
But now, "You seem to have mellowed" or "You seem so much happier," the media questioning of him usually begins, at virtually every stop on the Sprint Cup tour.
And he always cites the magnificent organization he's been given to run, the brilliant people around him.
He doesn't go along very well with the constant mention that he is the first owner/driver to lead the points since Alan Kulwicki won the championship in 1992.
"It's just a different time and a different era," he told reporters the other day at Michigan.
Kulwicki carried a little sticker on his Fords, the cartoon character Underdog, and it was absolutely appropriate. He ran everything about the team. He ran the business out of his briefcase in the garage. He ran the racing literally out of the driver's seat, calling the pit stops. His sponsorship was shoestring. He ran on less than half the budgets of the teams he beat.
Stewart has had more success, sooner, than any other owner/driver in modern-era NASCAR. But no one has ever set out with anything even close to this kind of support.
He has full access to Hendrick Motorsports equipment and technology. He has big sponsorship.
So on race weekends, Stewart really is just the driver. Kulwicki never was.
But there is one similarity Stewart touched on accidentally when he was explaining that he wasn't very knowledgeable about Kulwicki.
When Kulwicki won the championship, Stewart was 21, and "I was in the middle of my stint with USAC, so I really wasn't as in tune with what was going on in NASCAR at that time," he said.
This was Stewart's time of working all day in a freezing machine shop running a drill press, or driving a tow truck up and down Georgetown Road in Indianapolis, past the enormous speedway, wondering what it would be like to drive there of running short tracks every night he could, eating dinner at 3 a.m. in some Denny's or Waffle House, his sprint car sitting outside on a trailer, cleansed of all the mud at some self-serve car wash
The point is, set as he might be now, Stewart paid his dues and climbed up by his bootstraps just like Kulwicki, and indeed, at the very same time as Kulwicki, just in a different league, in more obscurity.
Oblivious as the young dirt-tracker was to Kulwicki's rise, Stewart accepts -- humbly -- some of the comparisons.
"It's still cool," he said, "to know how much respect everybody had for Alan because he was an owner/driver, and how much respect people have shown us because of the same thing."
The respect comes because NASCAR racers know how far Stewart has come.
The popularity with the masses, and the sales of Tony Stewart stuff, just might be accelerating because -- with Tony the Terrible missing and perhaps retired -- the humble, grateful Tony Stewart is here to stay.
A man like that, the masses can identify with. Feel that he is one of them, that he knows what their lives are like.
Stewart might not be emerging so much like a Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.