A week ago Monday, Tony Stewart's Sprint Cup Series season was, by all intents and purposes, over. He was in a dogfight for the a spot in the Chase, and his June win at Dover International Speedway seemed to put him in a position to at least snag a Wild Card, if not a top-10 position in the standings.
An injury ended those title hopes.
Racing in a sprint car (note: not a Sprint Cup car) at Southern Iowa Speedway, Stewart was taken out while leading when a lapcar spun out. The accident resulted in Stewart breaking both bones in his lower right leg; and required two surgeries and six days in the hospital to fix.
There's no timetable on whether Stewart will return to the Sprint Cup Series this year, but his title hopes are certainly dashed. That's disappointing for him, certainly, but it's as disappointing for the rest of his support group. Be it his team that was looking for a second championship in three seasons, his sponsors that pay a lot of money on the hope of appearing in victory lane, or the fans that buy tickets to see him.
Having missed the race at Watkins Glen on Sunday, and with Atlanta (Sept. 1) and Chicagoland (Sept. 15) on the way, Stewart is assured to miss at least three tracks where the Sprint Cup Series visits only once a year. That means that all those No. 14 fans that faithfully go to those venues will not have the opportunity to see their favorite driver race, and that doesn't include the fans at the other tracks that might only attend one race. In the case of NHMS, that includes the fans that attend our SYLVANIA 300 on Sept. 22.
The truth is that Stewart is a race car driver. He grew up racing anything with four wheels and he continues that passion today in races like last Monday's.
Furthermore, he owns his own team, so he doesn't need to respond to a boss. Nationwide Series driver Travis Pastrana, for instance, was forced to stop his motocross and other (non-Global RallyCross) X-Games activities per an order from owner Jack Roush. The owner has made the same clear to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. when it comes to sprint cars. Of course, Stewart races for Stewart-Haas Racing, so he doesn't have that problem.
To put it simply, Stewart can do what he wants, and he does. He's an independent-minded person and that mentality has endeared him to race fans for the better part of two decades.
The reality, however, is that this injury is irresponsible and unfair.
Stewart's passion for racing is great, but he's a professional athlete that gets paid millions of dollars to do his job. That job is to run one Sprint Cup Series race per week, and he had done that for 521 races before missing this past weekend's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
Injuries happen in racing. Denny Hamlin's broken back at California earlier this year and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion at Talladega last fall are good examples of drivers that missed time due to on-track injuries. However, Stewart's broken leg is not a bi-product of racing in the Sprint Cup Series. It's the result of a decision to participate in a non-sanctioned event, and herein lies the problem.
Stewart makes his money by racing on Sundays. It's his responsibility to his hard-working team, high-rolling sponsors and die-hard fans to make sure he races each weekend. Because of this injury, which could have easily been prevented, he's failed in his job responsibility.
He knew his choice to race sprint cars put him in professional danger, but elected to participate regardless. The week before the injury, his car flipped five times in a sprint car race, and in mid-July, he was involved in a 15-car pileup.
NASCAR has put an incredible amount of emphasis on driver safety and it's shown in recent years. It is definitely a top priority at all levels of racing, but, at lower levels, neither the sanctioning bodies nor the tracks have the abundance of resources to spend on research and development. Tragically, late NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was killed earlier this year when he was involved in a sprint car wreck.
When asked about the five flips (in a Pocono Raceway press conference three days before his injury), Stewart seemed irritated the media brought it up.
"You guys (in the media) need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff. It's starting to get annoying this week about that. That was just an average sprint car wreck. When they wreck, they get upside down like that. That was not a big deal," he said. "… I guarantee you, there were 15, 20 guys across the country who flipped just like that this weekend. We're just fine. If it's bad, we'll let you guys know."
It's estimated that Stewart races in about 70 sprint car races per year. As mentioned, racing is his passion and this is something he loves to do. Unfortunately, bad luck caught up to his decision last week; for Stewart and all those that support him, it means he will not have a chance to contend for this year's Sprint Cup Championship.
That's disappointing on many levels.