To Tony Stewart, the ideal Monday night isn't spent at an upscale restaurant with friends or at his home in Columbus, Ind., hanging out on his deck that overlooks a private lake. To Stewart, the three-time Sprint Cup champion, his perfect Monday evening -- even after he's competed in a NASCAR event only 24 hours earlier -- is racing winged Sprint Cars on small dirt tracks that lay amid fields of corn and wheat throughout rural America.
"At my core I'm a grassroots racer," Stewart told me a few years ago. "That's where the real racing takes place."
On Monday night Stewart suffered a severe injury doing as much and put his odds of making the Chase for the Cup in serious jeopardy.
With five laps remaining in the 30-lap feature race on Monday at Southern Iowa Speedway, Stewart was leading. The small crowd was whipped into froth; Stewart is an even bigger legend on these local tracks than he is in the Cup series, and his mere presence in races will spur hard-core racing fans to drive hundreds of miles to see him slide on the dirt through the turns.
But then terror: As Stewart, 42, charged into Turn 4, a car in front of him piloted by Josh Higday spun. Stewart was collected in the wreck and, according to reports, Stewart's car wound up on its side. He broke his right tibia and fibula. Stewart was conscious as he was placed in an ambulance and driven to a local hospital. He was eventually airlifted to a Des Moines hospital where he underwent surgery.
Stewart's team, Stewart-Haas Racing, has already said that Stewart won't race in this weekend's Cup race at Watkins Glen. While it's unclear how long he'll be out of the car, the accident is serious blow to his Chase hopes. He's currently 11th in the standings and has one victory, which means if the playoffs started today he'd earn one of the two-wild cards that advance to the Chase.
But his hold on that spot is tenuous. With five races remaining in the regular season, Stewart only has a 10-point lead over Martin Truex Jr. and a 19-point margin over his teammate Ryan Newman. Both Truex and Newman also have one victory, so if both of them passed Stewart in the standings, Stewart would miss the playoffs. In all likelihood, if Stewart were forced to sit out two races, he wouldn't make the Chase.
Only one week ago, on July 29, Stewart was involved in another hold-your-breath wreck at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, where Stewart rolled his sprint car five times. He was uninjured in that crash, and last weekend before the NASCAR race at Pocono, he spoke to reporters about the incident.
"You mortals have to learn, you guys need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff," he said. "It was not a big deal. 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."
There has been a spate of horrifying crashes recently on local short dirt tracks like Southern Iowa: Over Memorial Day weekend, Josh Burton, 22, lost his life at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway in a sprint car wreck and then, two weeks later, NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, 27, died from injuries he suffered while racing in a sprint car race at Bridgeport (N.J.) Speedway.
Stewart and Leffler were close friends. While Leffler's death stung Stewart deeply, Stewart vowed that it wouldn't deter him from racing on local short tracks. "We raced together a lot," Stewart said of Leffler, "and our career paths were very similar. He loved racing, especially open-wheel racing, and that's a passion we both share. To have him not around to talk about whatever race one of us had just run, or were going to run, will be hard."
On Monday night Stewart was luckier than Leffler, but his 2013 Sprint Cup title aspirations may have very well ended in a cloud of dust on a dirt track surrounded by Iowa cornfields.