The accident and resulting injury Tony Stewart suffered in a sand rail mishap in the Southern California desert late last month can best be described as a freak incident.
Stewart had to undergo surgery a few days after the wreck and his return has become nothing more than a guessing game. Some reports say it may be late May before he’s able to climb back in a race car. Other reports say July, and I’ve seen at least one or two others that say Stewart’s season is done – as is his career would then be as well.
But the three-time Sprint Cup champion isn’t the only one who’s hurting as a result. So too are a countless number of diehard fans of Stewart and the No. 14 Chevrolet.
No, they weren’t riding shotgun with Stewart when he sailed over a sand dune and came down in an extremely hard landing. But in a sense, they may as well have been.
For Stewart’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time if you’re a Stewart fan. In what was supposed to be a joyous celebration of his career – he is due to retire at the end of the current NASCAR season – I can’t imagine the number of fans who will never get a chance to say goodbye to Stewart or see him race again in-person.
Not to mention Tony missing his last chance to finally claim the elusive Daytona 500 victory he spent 16 years chasing – and now will never have the chance to do so again.
Think of all the fans that bought tickets for all the early-season races and tracks that the NASCAR tour visits. In addition to Daytona, there’s Atlanta this weekend, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Fontana, Bristol, Texas, Talladega – and who knows how many more tracks and races Stewart will miss.
Don’t misinterpret that I’m blaming Stewart for disappointing so many of his fans. That’s totally not the case.
Rather, having known Stewart for over 15 years, I bet the fact he’s not racing – and not engaging with his legion of fans – is probably hurting him as much as it hurts them, and probably hurting him as much as the lingering pain from his accident does.
There’s such a contrast between Jeff Gordon’s final year and all the honors that came with it last season, and how this season has begun for Stewart being sidelined.
The Indiana native had said he didn’t want tracks to go out of their way to “celebrate” his impending retirement or reflect back on his illustrious career. He wanted little fanfare. He just wanted to do what his idol, A.J. Foyt, did when he went out as a race car driver: simple and quietly.
It’s not that Stewart didn’t want his fans to share in the moment in his final appearance as a driver at every track on the circuit. But he wanted to do it his way, not have something artificially engineered by track PR and marketing types.
Also See: Ty Dillon to Replace Stewart in Atlanta
Stewart is a very proud man. It’s part of his Midwest roots and blue collar upbringing.
He knows how much his absence is hurting the sport and hurting his fans. But perhaps the most difficult aspect – or the thing that hurts the most, after his injury – is he can’t do anything about it.
Throughout his racing career, be it IndyCar, sprint cars or NASCAR, Stewart has always been the kind of Type A personality and athlete that took charge, leading the way on and off the track.
When he was told he couldn’t do something, particularly if it came via NASCAR edict earlier in his career, Stewart would more often than not either not listen or ask why he couldn’t.
Granted, he’s mellowed with time and matured. Being a co-team owner has had a lot to do with that. He’s had to have a more civil demeanor and attitude. Sure, he could still be Smoke, but only on the track.
Off the track, he had to worry about keeping sponsors happy – and about keeping their checks coming to help support either his team or the other three Cup teams under the SHR umbrella.
Of course, if he had his druthers, this would never have happened to Stewart. He was merely having an afternoon of fun, made a mistake and now he’s paying for it – for who knows how long.
And in a way, his fans are paying for it, too, not being able to cheer for him or see him one last time.
Let’s just hope Stewart recovers by June, so he’ll have one more chance to show his appreciation to fans when the circuit goes back around and visits most tracks for the second time.
Or in Stewart’s case, the last time around for him.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski