5:39 PM EDT, August 6, 2013
A few months back during Speedweeks, I asked Tony Stewart why he loves going off the grid and competing in dirt-track races in winged-sprint cars not sanctioned by NASCAR.
"Every time somebody says, 'Why?' I say, 'Why not?' '' Stewart said.
There is only one word that comes to mind on the heels of Stewart breaking his right tibia and fibula in a sprint-car crash in Iowa on Monday night:
Stewart will be sidelined indefinitely, effectively crushing his chances of qualifying for the Chase and trying to win his fourth Cup championship. Moonlighting as a professional race-car driver is a dangerous side job, but Stewart knows that.
Stewart — affectionately called "Smoke" — also has a undeniable pull to get away from the NASCAR grind. He finds that solace on small-town tracks, where he can get down and dirty, going back to his working-class roots, and not have to worry about shaking hands with sponsors or dealing with questions from interlopers like me.
"Most people when they make it to the big time want the fine life," said Kenny Wallace, another NASCAR guy who loves racing on dirt. "The fine life to Tony is out at Ocala Speedway on a Friday night."
Stewart was at a half-mile dirt track Monday night — Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa — and leading the 30-lap feature in a 360 winged sprint car with five laps remaining when a lapped car spun, collecting Stewart and two other drivers.
Stewart, 42, won't compete at Watkins Glen this weekend and will be replaced by veteran Max Papis. But don't be stunned if Stewart is out for longer than that. It's unfortunate because Stewart has no wiggle room in the Sprint Cup Chase. Stewart is 11th in the standings with one victory, which would give him one of two-wild cards slots.
But Stewart will become toast quickly with just five races remaining in the regular season, especially because he has just a 10-point lead over Martin Truex Jr. and a 19-point advantage over his Stewart-Haas teammate Ryan Newman, each of whom also has one victory.
That said, I seriously doubt Stewart will get the memo about scaling down his interest in dirt-track racing. Just last week, Stewart rolled his car five times but walked away in a sprint-car race at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario.
"You mortals have got to learn; you guys need to watch more sprint-car videos and stuff," Stewart said last Friday at Pocono. "It was not a big deal. It's starting to get annoying this week about that. That was just an average sprint-car wreck. When they wreck, they get upside down like that."
The problem is that Stewart is not an average race car driver. He is one of the best in the world, and his livelihood depends on the ability to compete in NASCAR, not some fun sideshow.
"Good morning America, twitterville, praying for #TonyStewart, some follow the path of least resistance, tony follows the path he can't resist," tweeted former NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip.
Tony's path leads to dangerous detours. And that, despite what Tony says, is a big deal.
Everybody talks about Daytona and Talladega as NASCAR's "wild card" races. So true. Might as well roll the dice and hope you don't roll snake eyes.
With all due deference to the super-speedway monsters, Watkins Glen is a little like that, too. It is a road course, an odd twist in the NASCAR schedule. You actually have to make right-hand turns at this joint.
The standard thinking is that it's a great gig for road-course veterans such as Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. And it is, but it's not quite that simple.
"As a road racer, you don't have a big advantage because there's nowhere where you're, OK, you need big cojones to go through the corner," Montoya said Tuesday. "You don't have that in Sonoma, where in the Glen all the esses, going over the curves and the backstop, it's always a challenge. And for guys that run in ovals every week, that is very difficult. And for me, my background is road racing, going over curves and hustling the car. That's what it's all about."
Montoya, in 23rd place in the Sprint Cup standings, needs a victory big-time to have any shot at making the 12-driver postseason. This is his best shot. It's not surprising that Montoya and Ambrose — who is 22nd in the standings — each has two victories in Cup history, and they were all on road courses.
"Marcos and myself, the only thing we need to do at the Glen to have a chance of winning is not screw up," Montoya said. "Yeah, honestly. If we have 10 pit stops, we're in the top three. I'll guarantee you we're in the top three. Worst-case scenario, we're fourth. If we run out of brakes, we'll finish fifth."
Hamlin rips Petty
Denny Hamlin and Danica Patrick have this much in common: Neither is a big fan of Kyle Petty.
Hamlin lashed out at Petty on Twitter recently, labeling Petty a "moron" for suggesting that Hamlin shut it down the rest of the season and focus on healing his lower back that was injured in a wreck at Fontana earlier this season.
Hamlin continued with the jabs after he had a short day at Pocono when his car hit the wall early in the race,
"He's an analyst, but not a very informative one because he doesn't know anything,'' said Hamlin, who is 25th in the standings. "My beef with Kyle is he has a lot of opinions about a lot of drivers, but he never once talked to any of them. To be an analyst, you've got to be in the trenches to find out the stories."
Asked specially what bothered him about Petty, Hamlin said: "It's just saying I thought I was the face of JGR. What I really said was I was the face of [primary sponsor] FedEx and the #11 team."
Petty didn't waste much time in responding. Petty admitted on Monday he was wrong after misinterpreting Hamlin's comments. "If you are going to run your mouth, if you are going to dish it out, you gotta take it, and the bone of contention here is that Denny is 100 percent right," Petty said. "I can take it, I can say that I'm wrong and that I misinterpreted what Denny said."
Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel