Tuesday, November 15, 2016

1000 Words: Tony Stewart

We enter the final week of Tony Stewart's NASCAR career and the coming Sunday is met with pause to reflect on the three-time champion but also urgency to move on because a champion will be decided and unlike last year when Jeff Gordon had a chance to win a fifth championship in what was billed as the final race of his career, Stewart will not have the same opportunity. He will have a shot to get his 50th victory and become the 13th driver to reach that milestone but even if he does get his 50th victory, it will be second fiddle to a seven-time champion, a back-to-back champion or a first-time champion.

It feels like Stewart is retiring a few years later than he should of. Most athletes hang on too long and drivers, whether it is NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar, sports cars or dirt cars, are no different. Three years ago, that summer night Stewart broke his leg in Iowa is probably the point of no return. He was 11th in the championship at the time of the accident but had a victory, five top fives and seven top tens in the ten races prior to the accident. His NASCAR season ended prematurely and Stewart never returned to being the same. The fiery personality was still there but it didn't have the same bite when he was barely in the top fifteen.

Then there was the accident in New York, just over a year after he broke his leg in Iowa. A man, Kevin Ward, Jr., died. It is part of Tony Stewart's history. When looking back on his career it shouldn't be skipped over. It happened and pointing fingers won't change what happened that night. The night shouldn't define either man's legacy but not mentioning it wouldn't be right either.

If anything, that night in New York left me scratching my head about why Stewart raced where he did. I understand Stewart is a racer but why there? Why race in a series few had heard of on a track many couldn't find on a map against drivers who did it for a hobby? I could understand him going to a USAC race or a World of Outlaws race but the Patriot Sprint Tour? For a driver of Stewart's stature, there had to be a bottom of what he would consider below him but there wasn't and I doubt even now if there is a bottom for him. He could have chosen more established options against drivers of a high caliber in more professional settings but at his core Stewart knows what it is like to be those weekend warriors whose family members might criticize their costly hobby. He can't leave them because he is one of them.

Tony Stewart was a Dale Earnhardt figure to an untraditional NASCAR market. He wasn't the eighth grade dropout and son of a local racing legend who struggled to breakthrough. Stewart didn't symbolize hope to an entire segment of the population but he was someone middle-class Northerners could get behind. My uncle was a fan of CART but the split, while it left him sour, introduced him to Tony Stewart and those few seasons he ran in the IRL and the Indianapolis 500 were enough for my uncle to latch on. When Stewart left for NASCAR, my uncle followed and surely a million others did as well. Stewart's arrival came at a time where NASCAR's national popularity was climbing and ties to a driver were no longer about what dirt track they originated from but what sponsors pumped money into the car and what one could buy from the shelves. He was someone my parents, my grandparents and my neighbors could relate to especially as he drove the orange Home Depot Chevrolet. It helped that the company adopted the auto industry's "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" mantra and turned his success into deals on bricks and ladders. When Stewart was a winner, everyone could benefit.

Stewart is one of the last speakers in NASCAR but he is probably tired of being the lone voice or one of a few voices that speaks up when displeasured. Brad Keselowski is next in line but he also runs a pretty unpopular stance on concussions and exaggerates when he is slighted, not that Stewart never exaggerated but Stewart knew how to use it for affect. If for the better part of two decades IndyCar had too many voices NASCAR has had too few willing to stir the pot. Look at Formula One this year. When enough drivers and teams expressed disdain for the new qualifying format, the format was dropped and the knockout format was reestablished. In NASCAR, drivers express concerns with the Chase and no changes are made or if changes are made they are in the opposite direction of where the drivers would like to see them to go. Stewart expressed safety concerns about NASCAR's relaxed lug nut policy and it responded with a vice grip. Stewart didn't mind the fines but in an era where budgets are tougher to put together and NASCAR becoming more like every other form of motorsport where a checkbook wins out over results, I feel fewer drivers will speak out or at least they won't be as passionate and easier to silence.

As much as we talk about Tony Stewart the personality, we can't forget to talk about Tony Stewart the driver. He was the first man to win the USAC Triple Crown, he won an IndyCar title and he went to NASCAR and won three championships. He ran 1,100 miles on Memorial Day weekend. He dazzled us in a Daytona Prototype on three wheels in the wet. He won the Chili Bowl twice and the Turkey Night Grand Prix once. Despite all Stewart's success across the different disciplines it is hard to believe he exits without a Daytona 500 or Indianapolis 500 victory. It's not that he never came close. He did. I don't think this will hang over Stewart's legacy. He won't be on a Michael Andretti-level at Indianapolis because he only ran the event five times and considering how much he despised restrictor plate racing and how much we realize restrictor plate racing is more of a crapshoot than any other form of racing it will all be forgiven considering he succeeded in places most drivers never dreamt of going.

For IndyCar fans, Stewart is one that got away. Some feel betrayed, forgotten and look on what he has become with anger, jealous and sadness or a mixture of the three. What if he stayed? What if he ran the Indianapolis 500 a few more times? Why didn't he run the Indianapolis 500 a few more times? Stewart's go to excuse in the last decade was he couldn't just do Indianapolis and be successful and many called bullshit as Townsend Bell qualified in the top half of the field and hung around the top ten in the race. If Bell could do it, Stewart could do it. Was he scared? He would say no. Any driver would say no. Fear of failure is the greatest hurdle to clear for a driver who hopes to dabble in different disciplines. In NASCAR, Stewart had reached a stature that he couldn't risk to tarnish each Memorial Day weekend at the race he snuck into as a child. A bad day there would raise questions at his day job, not just of Stewart but fellow drivers questioning their own capability. If Stewart couldn't succeed at Indianapolis, why should they think they could and what does that say about the competitiveness of those in IndyCar?

I am excited for post-NASCAR Tony Stewart. He won't be contesting the Indianapolis 500 but where will he end up? How much dirt racing will he do? Will he take an invitation to drive a sports car in the 24 Hours of Daytona? Would he be serious enough to try Le Mans? What wacky place will he be and what will he be racing and against whom? Sunday will be the end to many but it is the day Tony Stewart has been looking forward to the most since he debuted in 1999: The day he is free to be a race car driver and not have a ten-month responsibility that occupies his weekends.