Team, Jimmie, Jr. jump to Stewart’s defense
August 10, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Tony Stewart’s injury while racing a sprint car last Monday has incited a lot of debate on whether NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers should risk injury by moonlighting in other series -- particularly when, like Stewart, they are also a team owner.
But none other than five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was quick to lead a strong and substantial defense of Stewart’s extracurricular activity on Friday, vehemently objecting to criticism of Stewart, who is still hospitalized with a badly broken leg and will see his consecutive Sprint Cup Series consecutive start mark end on Sunday at 521 races.
“I know that Tony is feeling bad about being injured and the effect that it has on his Cup team,’’ Johnson said Friday. “It’s crazy to think he won’t be a player in the Chase.
“But you know, I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around, and it’s troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles.
“We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles. And then you look at the race tracks that he owns and his involvement with.
“The guy has done so much for our sport and of course we don’t want to see him injured, but I’ve been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it.’’
Johnson wasn’t alone in his feelings. Drivers from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to his own teammates, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, voiced support for Stewart’s barnstorming around the country.
But it was perhaps racing legend A.J. Foyt who summed up the general feeling best.
“He ain't no prima donna and life is short, and we don't know how we are going to die or what's going to happen,” Foyt told the Los Angeles Times. “I just hate to see anybody badmouth Tony for anything he's doing."
Stewart had originally scheduled 70 sprint car races in addition to his Cup schedule, giving him well over 100 starts on the calendar year -- a source of pride for Stewart, who has long maintained that his racing between Cup weekends is his version of golf, his get-away hobby, his guilty pleasure.
He isn’t married, has no children and because of that, has always insisted the free time those circumstances afford him allow him to race until his heart is content -- or at least more than so many of his Cup competitors who have families or drive for team owners/sponsors that frown on the extra racing.
“I think Tony ought to do what he wants to do,’’ Earnhardt said. “I think if he wants to race everywhere every night of the week, that’s what he wants to do and that’s what makes him happy.
“He understands the risks and the situations that can happen, and it was worth it to put in that kind of effort and go do it. I know he’s upset that he feels like he’s let his team down, and that’s nothing you can do to make him change his mind about that because he understands that his top priority is his Cup program, especially being an owner.
“He wears a lot of hats and he wears them really well, and he’s such an asset to the sport as a driver and to come in as an owner and do the things that he’s done and have the success he’s had. He’s become even more important to the sport.’’
Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon was equally adamant. Like several others, the four-time Cup champ feels that what’s been good for Stewart has been good for NASCAR. The exposure and attention Stewart generates every week in far-flung regions of the country only helps the sport’s popularity.
If anything, Gordon said he thinks Stewart’s accident Monday night in Iowa may draw attention to sprint car safety.
“When the conversation is on the flip side about who is a real racer in this garage area, who’s got the most talent, who’s out there doing the most for motorsports, then Tony Stewart rises to the top of that list of the great things he’s doing,’’ Gordon said. “Then as soon as he gets injured then you say, ‘Oh boy, maybe he shouldn’t have been doing that?’
“For me, I say that’s Tony, and I tell him all the time when he goes and runs the sprint car and wins or is competitive, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s awesome and that’s unbelievable.’
“That’s because I couldn’t do that and I don’t choose to do that because of different things that are happening in my life and the choice that I made, but I applaud him and definitely support him in that effort.’’
Another source of support -- and for Stewart, perhaps the most important -- has come from his teammates and his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
SHR Director of Competition Greg Zipadelli said Friday that Stewart felt as if he’d let his team down. But his teammates Newman and Patrick couldn’t disagree more.
“Obviously you get a lot of people on both sides of the fence about the safety of sprint car racing, but I said, ‘bleep happens,’ it just does,’’ Patrick said. “Nobody at the team is mad or upset. We feel bad for him. We all want him around. At the end of the day, the most important people are the people around you. None of us are mad whatsoever; we just feel bad for him.’’
Newman found out about the accident about 2 a.m. ET Tuesday morning -- a phone call from Iowa asking for use of the Newman’s plane. He’s been in contact with Stewart and assures, “He sounds fine to me. Same ol’ Tony with the way he texted me.
“I think he knows what he has ahead of him. He’s no fool.”
Obviously, with Stewart sidelined indefinitely and the rookie Patrick ranked 27th, Newman becomes the organization’s only shot at making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He’s currently 15th in the standings, coming off a huge win at Indianapolis two weeks ago and sits only 24 points out of 10th place -- the final guaranteed Chase berth.
And even with the impact it makes on the organization having potentially only one car in the Chase instead of two (Stewart holds one of the Wild Card positions entering the weekend), Newman doesn’t fault his friend and team owner one bit for passionately pursuing his hobby. Quite the contrary.
“Tony Stewart is Tony Stewart, and he can lead his own life,’’ Newman said. “He has the talent that he can do what he wants. And everything in life has a byproduct if it doesn’t go right. There’s nothing to say his airplane wouldn’t have a malfunction on the way to Iowa before he even races a sprint car.
“The people that chime in like that (criticizing Stewart) are the people that never get off the couch, sitting there eating bonbons and watching (Jerry) Springer all day.’’
“He’s actually got a pretty good track record for all the laps he’s run and not having the injuries. His last injury that sidelined him I believe was in an IndyCar 15 years ago before his Cup career.’’
For all the Monday morning quarterbacking about the situation, it was abundantly clear in the Sprint Cup garage this weekend that the NASCAR community considers the benefits and rewards of Tony Stewart being Tony Stewart far outweigh the risks.
“When we talk about personalities and how that drives the sport, he’s definitely (at) the top of the list as one of the more important ones and the more influential ones that drive the needle,’’ Earnhardt said. “I think that he’s got to do what makes him happy and that’s why you like him. That’s where the appeal is with Tony. I think he is a racer’s racer.
“He’s leveraged his life to where he can make those kinds of decisions and be able to enjoy that part of it.
“I think more power to him.’’