Is the Risk of Returning to Sprint Cars Worth It for Tony Stewart?

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2014

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This is exactly the kind of column that NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart says he never reads.

But maybe he should.

Stewart made headlines last week at Dover International Speedway when he met with the media and basically said he's going to resume racing sprint cars and he doesn't care what anyone thinks about it.

That certainly is his right as an American. He can do whatever he wants—even when it's not the smartest thing to do.

But returning to sprint cars now seems stupid and selfish. Maybe even downright foolish.

This isn't to say Stewart should never race sprint cars again. That's silly. But by his own recent admission, he's not even 100 percent recovered yet from the sprint car accident in which he suffered a double compound fracture of his right leg last August in Iowa.

Why tempt fate again? Why not at least wait until he's 100 percent healthy? Or better yet, why not wait until his NASCAR driving career is over?

Stewart is not just a driver now on the NASCAR side, with responsibilities to one team—but also co-owner of a Sprint Cup organization with enormous high-stakes commitments to sponsors who have expectations of success and the exposure that comes with it.

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Stewart makes at least most of his living as driver-owner for Stewart-Haas Racing, which competes in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR's highest level of stock-car racing. But he's always had a passion for driving smaller sprint cars—high-powered, winged race cars designed for running on short, oval tracks usually made of dirt.

As co-owner of a top-flight NASCAR organization, he's not like other drivers. His responsibilities to sponsors are greater and so are his responsibilities to members of his No. 14 Chevrolet team.

For instance, team members get more money and more exposure if the group as a whole is successful. They presumably get a whole lot less of both when working for a team that meddles in the middle of the finishing pack week after week or for one that loses its driver to injury for doing something that was completely unnecessary.

We know Stewart doesn't care what anyone else thinks, having been very clear about that when he engaged in some verbal jousting with the media at Dover.

He was talking about how he tested a sprint car last week for the first time since his injury and how he planned to resume racing them soon. But he has no plans to share any further information about exactly when that will be. Stewart told reporters at Dover, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports:

I will be able to tell you how it went. Let's put it that way. You won't know when it's coming. When I do go nobody is going to know about it. I'm just going to slide in and do it. I want to enjoy it. I don't want it to be a cluster. Judging off the fact of how many people showed up just to talk to me about going and testing for a couple of hours I can imagine what the group is going to be like after I run my first race.

Again, Stewart doesn't have to tell anyone what his side racing itinerary is. He doesn't even have to be cordial to the media (and frequently isn't).

But there obviously are consequences to his actions that affect others. He should think twice about that before engaging in the dangerous art of sprint car racing again. 

He suffered his sprint car accident while moonlighting from his Cup job last August. He has been racing sprint cars on the side for years, but this time, the injury that resulted from it caused Stewart to undergo a total of three surgeries while missing the last 15 of the 36 races on last year's NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

For the first time since 2006 and for only the second time in the Chase for the Sprint Cup era that began in 2004, Stewart failed to qualify for the Chase that determines the season's NASCAR Cup champion over the final 10 races of the year. In fact, it marked the only other time since 2006 (when he finished 11th in points and only 10 drivers made the Chase) that he had failed to finish a season within the top nine in the Cup points standings.

Sponsors who pay millions expect drivers who consistently make the Chase to consistently make the Chase and contend for championships. That didn't happen for Stewart's team last season, and he's struggling again this season.

Prior to last year's injury that occurred at age 42, Stewart had been racing in some kind of vehicle or another since he was seven years old and had never missed a race because of injury, as Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News noted last September. Pockrass went on to note that Stewart had previously suffered broken bones in only one IndyCar accident in his long career.

May 16, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) during practice for the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

At the time, Stewart said he knew he has been very lucky to have that kind of track record.

"But it's been surprising to me," he told Pockrass. "To go 35 years and run all the thousands of races we've run, and to finally have an injury, it's like, this hasn't been a bad run."

It has, in fact, been a great run. Stewart has three Cup championships and has established a racing empire that includes not only part-ownership of SHR on the NASCAR side, but a number of small tracks in the Midwest and other racing-related businesses.

And not everyone thinks it's stupid for Stewart to get back into a sprint car so soon. Pockrass wrote in another column for The Sporting News recently that "for better or for worse, Stewart is married to his sprint car. It is what brings him true joy."

Pockrass went on to write that Stewart likely will benefit on the Sprint Cup side from a return to a sprint car, because it will have a soothing mental effect on Stewart and help him forget that he's currently 21st in the Cup points standings.

That's one opinion from an admittedly talented and well-respected NASCAR journalist.

Then there is this one: Stewart will have plenty of time to race sprint cars when he's retired from driving in Sprint Cup. Until then, it's too dangerous, and there is too much else at stake for him to risk getting back into them right now.

Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR and now write about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz. 

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