NASCAR mailbag: What does the future hold for Tony Stewart?

Wednesday August 21st, 2013

Despite his recent injury, Tony Stewart has said he plans to continue racing sprint cars in 2014.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

With three races remaining in the Sprint Cup regular season, one formidable figure already has been eliminated from playoff contention: Tony Stewart. After breaking his right tibia and fibula in a winged sprint car crash on Aug. 5, Stewart will miss the rest of 2013. Mark Martin will slide into the cockpit of Stewart's number 14 Chevy for 12 of the final 13 races of the season, with Austin Dillon filling in at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 20.

According to his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart should be completely recovered in time for 2014 preseason testing in January. Will the injury, which has been described to me as a "very bad" break, slow Stewart next season? Will it temper his aggressiveness on the track? These are among the questions we'll try to answer in this week's mailbag.

I have been a longtime Tony Stewart fan and my feeling is that Tony knows the risks involved in racing as well as, or better than, most drivers out there. As a dirt track fan, I selfishly hope Tony continues to show up at random sprint car shows. I feel it's good for sprint car racing, good for Tony, and exciting for the fans.
-- Nathaniel, Troy, Ohio.

Fear not, Nathaniel, because Stewart already has said that he plans to continue racing sprint cars in 2014. This is indeed very good news for the sport. Stewart is a big-time draw at these grassroots events and easily the most influential advocate for sprint car racing in NASCAR today.

The safety of the winged sprint cars needs to be re-examined, and Stewart surely will be at the forefront of the process. Just as Dale Earnhardt's wreck ultimately spurred a safety revolution in NASCAR -- new technology was introduced into the cars and SAFER barriers became commonplace at the tracks as a result of The Intimidator's death -- I think Stewart's accident will serve as a wake-up call to the sprint car community.

Tony's passion and his political incorrectness made me a fan. Also he's a hell of a racer and a great promoter for all different mediums of racing. He will slow down. I believe he'll have too. His injuries may have taken their toll. He's not that young a guy.
-- Sue, Chicago

You are correct about one thing, Sue: At 42, Stewart is in the waning days of his prime. As a general rule, NASCAR drivers are at their physical peak between the ages of 28 and 39. Once they turn 40, the hand-eye-foot coordination tends to diminish -- as does the drivers' willingness to put their cars in harms way on the track, a willingness that's often needed to win a race.

But Stewart is far from your typical NASCAR driver. He won a championship in 2011 at age 40 and, unlike a Jimmie Johnson or a Jeff Gordon, Stewart doesn't have a wife and kids or many interests outside of racing. Put simply, he's as committed to (or you could even say as obsessed with) his craft as anyone in the sport today. That's why he races sprint cars during the week, why he owns a sprint car team, a NASCAR team, and a local dirt track (Eldora Speedway, in Ohio). It's my belief that this injury won't slow him a tick in 2014.

Remember the Hendrick Motorsports "crew chief merry-go-round" prior to the 2011 season? The 5, 24, and 88 teams all swapped crew chiefs. The one team that didn't participate was the 48. And in my opinion it wasn't because Hendrick was afraid to break up a winning team, or other such nonsense. It's because he knew that a new crew chief would expose Johnson as nothing more than a pretty good driver, at best. If he's "the greatest American race car driver of all time," he should be able to win no matter who his crew chief is.
-- Mike, Orlando, Fla.

Why on earth would Rick Hendrick want to separate Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus? Heading into the 2011 season the duo had won five straight championships, an unprecedented feat in the history of NASCAR. Splitting them up would have been akin to the Patriots re-assigning Bill Belicheck after he won his third Super Bowl in four years.

Has Johnson benefited from having Knaus, who in my book is the best crew chief of his generation, atop his pit box? Absolutely. Could Johnson win with another crew chief? I think so. But as long as Knaus and Johnson are both employed by Rick Hendrick, they will remain together. Come November, after all, they'll be celebrating their sixth title in eight years.

The real reason for that 2011 crew chief shakeup at Hendrick was Rick Hendrick's determination to do everything in his power to reinvigorate the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. To that end, Hendrick moved Earnhardt, who at the time hadn't finished higher than 21st in points for two straight years, to Jeff Gordon's old team and housed him in the same garage as Johnson. The switch has worked: Earnhardt is now on pace to qualify for three straight Chases since Hendrick teamed him with crew chief Steve Letarte.

I have an "improve NASCAR" list:

1. Revamp points... No points for 20th place back.

2. Knock 100 miles off all oval races except Daytona, Indy and Talladega.

3. Eliminate second dates at tracks.

4. Shorten yellows, and eliminate phantom/unneeded and "competition" yellows.

5. Eliminate the "lucky dog" lap-back process.

6. Return to "stock" manufacturing body types.

-- W.H., Los Angeles

I like all of these ideas. You don't hear a lot of talk about eliminating the "lucky dog" rule, but it's something I'd do if were the czar of NASCAR. To me, there is something distinctly uncompetitive about seeing a car blaze around the track under yellow while everyone else is motoring along at 55 mph or so. There have been countless times when I've been watching a race with friends when someone new to the sport will tell me that the "lucky dog" rule flies in the face of what athletics should be all about. (Also, for the record, there already is too much luck involved in racing, so whenever you have a chance to diminish the role of luck in the sport, you should.)

Lars, here are my suggestions on how to make NASCAR more compelling. First, shorten the season. It's tough to keep my interest up from February to the week before Thanksgiving. Limit it to no more than 30 races. Second, make the fields smaller. There are too many start and park teams. Limit the field to 36 to 40 cars. Third, there should be no more than two cars per team and no crossover teams. There are too many teams who really are nothing more than extensions of the Big Four (Hendricks, Childress, Gibbs, and Penske). Fourth, limit the races to no more than 400 miles/400 laps and make sure that they start on time. Emulate what the NFL does: either start at 1:00PM ET or at 4:00PM, or at 7:30PM for Saturday night races. And do all of the pre-race stuff before this start time. The races should start no more than five to 10 minutes after the hour they are scheduled to start. Fifth, have one or two midweek races. Sixth, get more makes in the series. I would love to see a Cadillac CTS coupe racing or a Buick Regal. Finally, this isn't something I think really can be changed, but these cars still don't look like anything I can buy. Those days of win on Sunday and buy on Monday are long gone.
-- Michael, Plymouth, Mich.

All of your points are valid in my book, Michael. I especially like what you're saying about start times. I've been to more than 100 races in my years on the beat and probably 90 percent of the time I've been unsure of what the precise start time is. And the thing is, I'm usually not alone when it comes to this among the writers in the media center.

I'm an open wheel racer in Northern California. I just wanted to update you: We've lost seven people this year in open wheel racing -- five drivers, two in the pits.
-- Dave, Newark, Calif.

I appreciate you passing along this information, Dave. I'm currently working on a substantial story for Sports Illustrated magazine on grassroots short track racing -- and its dangers -- focusing on one particularly deadly weekend. Stay tuned.

Thanks for the questions. Please keep them coming. Now it's onto Bristol, where on Saturday night the engines will fire under the lights in what is typically one of the most entertaining races of the year.

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