Here's an observation I feel compelled to share in light of the scary, barrel-rolling wreck that a certain three-time Sprint Cup champion was wheeled away from on Monday night: Tony Stewart is one of the three most honest athletes I've covered in my 19 years at Sports Illustrated.
(As for who the other two are, well, that's a column for another day.)
Over the years, I've spent time with Stewart on his private jet, at his different homes in Columbus, Ind., at the racetrack he owns -- Eldora Speedway -- in New Weston, Ohio, at his race shop outside of Charlotte, NC, in a hotel lounge in Midtown Manhattan, on a helicopter over Miami, and in different cars while riding to various events across the country. In all of our hours together, Stewart has always been the same: incisive, sharp-witted, highly self-aware and, most significant, brutally forthright.
And so I'm certain that he will carefully consider whether he'll continue to race winged sprint cars in the future. No doubt, the subject of Stewart's passion for competing in these vehicles on rural dirt tracks during his off time from NASCAR will be the topic du jour this weekend at Watkins Glen (NY) International, a road course on which the Sprint Cup series will fire the engines on Sunday.
Stewart broke his right tibia and fibula at Southern Iowa Speedway and will miss the race on Sunday. (Max Papis will take his place in the No. 14 Chevy). He underwent surgery early Tuesday morning in Des Moines, but according to his team, he'll need another soon. It's unclear when -- or if -- he will race again this season, but it seems virtually certain that the injury will cost Stewart, who is currently 11th in the Cup standings, a chance at making the Chase.
Should Stewart have been racing at Southern Iowa Speedway? Since he's the owner of his NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing, he doesn't have a boss telling him that he can't turn laps during the week on dirt tracks, which is a highly dangerous endeavor. Many top NASCAR drivers have clauses in their contracts that forbid them to compete in such races, but that's not the case with Stewart. So my take is that he was simply doing what he enjoyed -- dirt races are the equivalent of his movie-night out -- and he shouldn't be chastised for it.
But Stewart surely will reconsider whether the risks of this type of racing outweigh the rewards. Here's my informed guess: Stewart, after an honest internal assessment, will cut back on his dirt track racing in 2014, but not completely stop. He has never been married, and I think a big reason why is because his true, genuine love is turning high-speed laps in the dirt. Many of his close friends have told me as much.
I'd love to get your feedback on Stewart and anything else NASCAR-related that's on your mind. We're steadily building a community in this space, so please keep the questions coming. I promise I read every word that is sent my way.
Now let's jump into this week's mailbag:
As a longtime NASCAR fan, I'd love to give you my thoughts on how to make the racing more competitive:
1. Use cars that have the same body dimensions as stock. How cool would it be if Mustangs and Camaros were racing, and they actually had the same dimensions as the ones you could buy? It would rekindle the brand loyalty, or hatred, that existed back in the day. It would also involve the manufacturers in a big way. Chevy would not be too pleased if Mustangs were trouncing Camaros every week in NASCAR!
2. Limit the amount of aerodynamic grip that is available to each car. This would reduce the reliance on clean air and should make for better racing.
3. Eliminate the multi-car teams. The words racing and teammates just don't belong in the same sentence. The sharing of information between teams and drivers has made all the cars nearly identical in performance. The difference in driving ability is very small at this level, and since the cars are so homogenized, that makes for boring races.
-- Rick, Colchester, CT
Now this is some radical thinking, Rick. NASCAR tried to incorporate more manufacturer brand identity with the new Gen-Six car that it introduced this season, but it takes a careful, scrutinizing eye to really notice a dramatic difference between a Chevy, a Ford and a Toyota out on the track. The idea was to put the "stock" back in "stock car racing," but clearly there is still work to be done by NASCAR in this area.
I agree 100 percent about reducing the aerodynamic grip. Less grip, to me, equals better racing because it puts more pressure on the driver to figure out his top-end speed through the corners.
But like it or not, multi-car teams are here to stay. That's simply an economic reality. Rick Hendrick, for instance, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building his four-car team and his racing empire. You don't think NASCAR is going to force him to tear it down, do you? I agree that information sharing is now more prevalent than ever, but race day performance still boils down to the driver, his crew chief and his team. There's a reason, after all, why Jimmie Johnson has had the fastest car in nearly half of the races this season.
My suggestion, which I feel would solve the 'boring racing' problem, is to come up with a new points system. The old system was terrible. The new system is even worse. Why do we care who finishes 23rd and 24th? Why do they even deserve points? Let's award points only to the top 15. This would eliminate the wrecked cars getting back on track and cautioning up the track. More important, it makes the drivers desperate to get into the point-scoring positions, which then would enhance the racing in the middle of the field. What are your thoughts?
-- Steve, Columbus, Ohio
I like this, Steve. Anything that simplifies the points system so that non-racing fans can understand it better is a move in the right direction. And I think there is merit in only awarding points to the top-15, because it would indeed foster more competitive mid-pack racing, which is desperately needed. So if I were the czar of NASCAR, I'd take a serious look at your points idea. Hopefully, Steve, the good folks in Daytona on Speedway Boulevard who run the sport are reading suggestions like yours.
If you want viewers to come back To NASCAR -- and make the Brickyard 400 interesting -- NASCAR should do the following:
1. Add 100 HP to the car.
2. Remove the splitter and rear wing.
3. Make the tires narrower and harder.
This will allow them more straightaway speed. The driver will have to use the brakes and downshift before most corners. This will make the driver more important than aerodynamics.
-- Howard, Omaha, Neb.
This would also lead to a slew of crashes, Howard. The question becomes: do we need to make the sport more dangerous to make it more interesting? Some would say yes, but frankly it's no fun for anyone -- especially the drivers -- when you're at a track and someone is seriously injured.
I was a dedicated big time fan spending thousands of dollars in die-cast cars and their haulers. I had many, many T-shirts of my favorite drivers and attended races when I could, but never missed them on television. But not anymore. Now there seems to be just one guy who can blow everybody away and 42 others might as well stay home. I gave all my collectibles away and only occasionally catch a race -- and then usually only at the end.
-- Jerry, Lancaster, Ohio
Jimmie Johnson's dominance in recent years clearly has not been a good thing for the overall health of the sport. NASCAR is aware of this, Johnson is aware of this, but at some point you just have to appreciate that we are witnessing -- in my opinion -- the greatest American race car driver of all time in his prime. Johnson should win his sixth title this fall with breathtaking ease.
There is no reason why any track deserves a second date. The attendance is bad at those tracks and the racing isn't good, either. They need to go to different tracks around the country and North America.
-- Matt, Acworth, Ga.
If it were up to me, Matt, I'd trim 10 races from the schedule and end the season the week before the NFL kicks off in September. The first events to be taken to the gallows would be second dates at Pocono, Michigan, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Phoenix.
What is the worst NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race so far in 2013?
-- Chris, Latham, NY
Hate to say this because it's one of my favorite tracks in the world, but the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a true sleeping pill of a race. There was only one lead change that actually occurred on the track; the rest happened on pit road, including Ryan Newman's winning pass of Jimmie Johnson. Yawn.
NBC needs NASCAR more than ESPN needs it, and therefore NBC will do a better job of promoting it. Plus, with Formula One and IndyCar already in place on NBC, they will be able to brand NBCSN as the major home for televised motorsport in the USA. On ESPN, NASCAR was always going to be second tier.
-- Brian, New Orleans, La.
This, Brian, is why NASCAR executives are genuinely excited about breaking away from ESPN and heading to NBC and NBC Sports Network in 2015. NASCAR needs to do everything in its power to shake up the sport to make it as relevant as it was a decade ago, and so for the very reason you mentioned, I think this will turn out to be a wise move by NASCAR.
Hard to believe that you think Danica Patrick will win a Sprint Cup race. DP is marketing program, not a race car driver. She brings in sponsors. I think her nickname should be "ATM" -- a money machine that cannot drive, either.
-- Richard, Dallas, Tx
Thanks for passing this along, Richard. My feelings about Patrick have been well-established in this space, but I'll be sure to pass along this note to Ms. ATM when she takes the checkered flag in the 2014 Daytona 500.
I appreciate all the questions, everyone. Time to go road racin' at the Glen! I'm jetting off to get married this weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyomingh, so I won't be writing my regular SI.com race preview piece. But let the record reflect: I'm picking Juan Pablo Montoya to reach Victory Lane on Sunday.