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Smoke and Mirrors

by Robb Reel

So when should a driver give himself the red flag?

The other NASCAR injury story has been that of Denny Hamlin, his back and his disagreement with Kyle Petty about packing it in and healing up for next season.  That story is not getting nearly as much run as that of Tony Stewart breaking his leg in a crash last Monday in Iowa.  Stewart was leading a sprint-car race -- not a Sprint Cup race -- when he got tangled in lapped traffic.

The question since has been: why does Stewart continue to "take these chances" driving in other series, especially now that he's a team and track owner?

The naysayers claim that his value to his sponsors as the driver of the Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 #14 Chevrolet and his importance as the face [and half the brains] of Stewart-Haas Racing are far too great.  They say that Tony is taking too many unnecessary risks by driving in all these small, "meaningless" races.  They call him "irresponsible" and "immature" and sometimes worse.

Meanwhile, fellow drivers have jumped to his defense.  Danica Patrick invoked the name of the legendary A.J. Foyt, who did for decades as Tony does now.  Fellow Hoosiers and Brickyard 400 champs Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman have sided with Stewart, as have Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and five-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.

Now, before I go on, I need to disclose the following:

  • I was raised in a racing family in Central Indiana.
  • I am roughly the same age as Tony.
  • I, too, believe there is no vehicle that I can't drive.

So, yes, I have been acquainted with Tony since long before he was famous.  I was around him as a teenager running karts and TQ midgets.  I got to see the same glimmers of greatness that led Mark Dismore to gamble on a punk kid and become Stewart's first real sponsor.  I was there at the green flag.

[Photo: courtesy of NASCAR.com]

It was plain then, as it is now, that Tony loves to race.  In fact, it's more than that.  He has to race.  It's the only time he's really "right"... and I mean that in the best possible way.  In this life, I have seen too many people addicted to substances that they know are so destructive, yet they can't reach escape velocity.  Perhaps the thrill of the track is just as addictive and just as dangerous for Tony.  The difference is that, rather than tearing down his life, racing is what has built it up.

It's disappointing to see his consecutive-start streak end today at 521 races.  It's not the same watching Max Papis run the #14, though Watkins Glen has been arguably his best track in the various NASCAR strata.  However, it's a greater disappointment to think that something -- or someone -- would stop Tony from being Tony.  Every racer has a limited amount of laps, one way or another, never knowing when the checkered will drop and almost never getting a white flag in warning.

The worst injury Tony Stewart could sustain is not a broken right tibia and right fibula; it's the broken heart from putting him behind the wall.