Tony Stewart's Wreck Presents Catch-22 for NASCAR Drivers

by Ryan Isley

William Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet “To race or not to race?” Ok, maybe he actually wrote “To be or not to be?”

But the question that faces NASCAR drivers after Tony Stewart crashed in a sprint car race in Iowa last week is whether or not drivers should be racing outside of their NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car. Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg and has undergone multiple surgeries which will keep him out of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car for Stewart-Haas Racing for at least a few weeks, starting this past Sunday at Watkins Glen.

It has taken me a while to write about this because to be honest, I was having an internal battle over this question myself. On one hand, they have a responsibility to their team and sponsors to be in the car for the 36 races each season. On the other hand, they go to these races outside of NASCAR venues for the fans who either don’t live close enough to a track with a Sprint Cup Series race or maybe can’t afford the tickets to a Sprint Cup Series race.

After much thought, the answer to me is pretty simple. To paraphrase the classic line from The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training:

“Let Them Race!”

And if injury is the main concern, it took Stewart three wrecks in a sprint car in less than two weeks to get injured. He even attacked the media who questioned him after the second wreck.

“Oh my God, You mortals need to watch more Sprint Car videos and stuff. It was not a big deal. It’s starting to get annoying this week about that. That was just an average Sprint Car wreck. That was not a big deal. I’ll guarantee you there were 15 to 20 guys across the country that flipped just like that and were fine just like we were.”

Whether they are in their Sprint Car Series stock car or a sprint car at a local dirt track, these drivers are always at a risk for injury.

Just ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. about injuries ruining a championship run. The driver of the No.88 car for Hendrick Motorsports had his hopes for the championship dashed in 2012 because of a crash that happened at Talladega Superspeedway in the fourth race of the Chase, resulting in a concussion. It was the second concussion he suffered in a matter of five weeks as he had also sustained one in a wreck while testing at Kansas Speedway.  That’s right – the first of the two concussions happened while testing, not racing, practicing or qualifying.

In fact, if Stewart misses the Chase this season due to the injury (which it seems he will), he won’t be the only driver this season to do so. Denny Hamlin is going to miss the Chase for the first time in his career because of an injury he suffered in a wreck at Auto Club Speedway in the fifth race this season. The 32-year-old had a compression fracture in his back from the wreck and missed four races, all but ending his Chase aspirations.

Speaking of Hamlin, it isn’t the first time that an injury has threatened his season. It was just a few seasons ago in 2010 that Hamlin underwent surgery on his knee after the season started to repair a torn ACL that he suffered playing basketball in the offseason. Despite the surgery, Hamlin didn’t miss a single race and ended up finishing second in the Sprint Cup Series final standings behind Jimmie Johnson.

It was an injury that didn’t happen on a track, but during Hamlin’s free time. So are we supposed to tell these guys they can’t have a life when they aren’t in the middle of a grueling season as well?

And when it comes to guys like Stewart, racing is their recreational activity, not golf or basketball. If the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are going to race in something other than the Sprint Cup Series, I would rather have them do it at local dirt tracks than in the Camping World Truck Series or especially the Nationwide Series.

There has become an epidemic in NASCAR where the Sprint Cup regulars are constantly going down to the Nationwide Series to run, taking the spot of other drivers who could be using the wheel time to further their development. Sprint Cup regulars have won 16 of the 21 Nationwide Series races this season. Kyle Busch has won eight races, putting him one win away from duplicating what Joey Logano – another Sprint Cup regular – did last season.

If these guys want to race, let them race…at local tracks. The fans love to see them come out and put on a show that otherwise wouldn’t take place at tracks like the one where Stewart wrecked.

This is what Stewart does – he races. Just like LeBron James plays basketball and Phil Mickelson plays golf. People aren’t going to complain when LeBron is playing at an open gym at the University of Akron or is training for the Olympics or is just playing pick-up games with other NBA players. Just like people don’t criticize Mickelson for playing golf on off days between tournaments. What if LeBron or Mickelson got hurt during one of these off-time games? We would just say that they were injured doing what they do.

That is what I am going to say about Tony Stewart – racers are going to race. And even a wreck isn’t going to deter them.

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