Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart checks his times during practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis on July 26. (AP Photo)
Tony Stewart’s push to make the Chase ended a thousand miles from nowhere.
It was a Monday night under the lights at a dirt track in Iowa, and Stewart was wheeling his sprint car around an anonymous oval in an effort to feed a need for speed that never seems to be satisfied. NASCAR has made Stewart a household name, but in reality, racing on dirt is Smoke’s first love.
And the dirt-track community loves Stewart right back. He is certainly among the top drivers currently competing in the Sprint Cup Series, but in the world of dirt, Stewart may as well be Richard Petty. He fills ramshackle grandstands across North America when he shows up to compete. He owns Eldora Speedway and serves as an ambassador for dirt-track racing.
It’s no secret that die-hard dirt-track racing fans aren’t usually fond of the racing that happens on pavement, and that’s traditionally been a two-way street. But Stewart has served as a liaison between the two worlds, bringing NASCAR fans and dirt-track racing together, first with his Prelude to the Dream charity race and more recently with the Camping World Truck Series event held at Eldora last month.
Up until last Monday, Stewart was able to take care of business on Sundays and spend a few nights during the week chasing his true passion. That all came to a grinding halt during his third sprint car wreck in as many weeks.
Stewart did more than just snap his leg in Iowa, he also dashed the dreams of hundreds of workers at Stewart-Haas Racing that were hoping to make the Chase and possibly win a championship. He also threw a wrench into the marketing campaigns of Mobil One, Bass Pro Shops and several other sponsors that pay big bucks to splash their logos across Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy.
It remains to be seen how long Stewart is sidelined but, barring a miracle, he won’t be racing at Bristol Motor Speedway in a couple weeks. For Jerry Caldwell and the rest of the BMS employees trying to sell out the IRWIN Tools Night Race, Stewart’s absence will strike a blow to their final push to sell tickets. Stewart has, after all, been the centerpiece of their marketing campaign after hurling his helmet at the hood of Matt Kenseth’s Ford last August.
The drivers at Watkins Glen this past weekend were nearly unanimous in their support of Stewart and his passion for racing outside of NASCAR. It should be noted that Kyle Busch, who held off Brad Keselowski for the win on Sunday, does plenty of extracurricular racing himself. Most of the drivers who stood up for Stewart called him a racer’s racer, a guy who lives to go fast.
But there’s more to being a NASCAR driver in the 21st century than going fast. The reality is that being competitive on the Cup circuit isn’t cheap. In fact, it costs tens of millions of dollars per season, and that money comes from major corporations that count on drivers to be pitchmen to the masses, motivational speakers to their employees at corporate events and last, but not least, race car drivers.
It would be easy to pile on and point the finger at Stewart for taking unnecessary risks if it weren’t for the fact that throwing caution to the wind is what makes him one of the best racers in the world. If Stewart weren’t the kind of person willing to push the envelope as far as he could on the racetrack, he wouldn’t have three Sprint Cup championships.
Stewart’s competitive fire is a double-edged sword, and in this case, it cut a lot of people very deep. All he can do now is make an effort to make amends to those folks he put in a bad position while he was off pursuing his passion.
The first step Stewart should make is to put a talented young driver in his No. 14 machine for the rest of the season. NASCAR needs young stars, but there is a lack of quality rides for up-and-comers. Stewart should hand over the keys of his Chevy to Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon and see what one of those guys can do in a topnotch Cup car for the few weeks.
But the biggest lesson to take away from this isn’t that racing outside NASCAR’s top three touring series can be dangerous, it’s that NASCAR racers are no longer seen as daredevils pushing the limits of speed. Sponsors see them as safe investments and fans see them as mere athletes outside the reach of serious injury.
Thomas Wolfe once dubbed Junior Johnson as the last American hero. Wolfe clearly jumped the gun because Johnson was just the beginning of a long line of stock car racing’s folk heroes. But in the wake of Stewart’s wreck, many in the sport anticipate team owners cracking down on their drivers racing outside the realm of NASCAR.
If that’s the case, Stewart may well be the last in a long line of swashbuckling racers, and for racing fans everywhere, that might be the unkindest cut of all.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.