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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You knew it was going to end. Tony Stewart had been so unbelievably affable, so caught up in the euphoria of one of the best weeks of his racing career, the sharp and biting remarks that often are a part of his interviews had been AWOL.
Then it happened.
|Tony Stewart stays busy as a team owner, driver and track owner. You will find him racing something most days of each week.|
In the middle of Sunday's postrace interview as the winning owner, the three-time Sprint Cup champion was asked if the success of Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series race at his Eldora Speedway and Ryan Newman's victory in the Brickyard 400 at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway were arguments for "hanging up this silly driving habit?"
"Take that mike away. You don't deserve to have that," Stewart snapped, seemingly half-biting and half-joking. "[I'm going to] climb this counter and beat your ass. That's the worst question I've heard all week."
Actually, that would come later.
But to the first question first. It was silly. Stewart was coming off a fourth-place finish at Indianapolis. He has a win at Dover and is 11th in the standings, putting him first in line for a wild-card spot in the Chase. He's two years removed from winning the championship.
At 42, he is likely many years from retiring from NASCAR's top series.
But it may be time for the driver known as "Smoke" to hang up -- or at least severely back off -- his passion for driving sprint cars and focus on his Sprint Cup car. He flipped five times in Monday night's race at a dirt track in Canada. Two weeks before, he was one of a dozen drivers involved in a sprint car accident that left a 19-year-old girl with a fractured back.
Combine that with the death of good friend Jason Leffler in a sprint car in June and the death of Joshua Burton in late May, and … well, do you need more reasons to back off?
Stewart's focus should be on making the Chase and winning another title. He has an entire organization at Stewart-Haas Racing, people making far less money than he does, depending on him.
Suppose he were injured Monday or Tuesday night in Canada? Suppose he is injured on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night before the Cup race at Pocono Raceway? To miss just one race could cost his organization millions if the Chase starts without him in it.
Stewart will tell you he can get hurt just as easily driving his street car as he can in a sprint car at tracks where safety initiatives are way behind what NASCAR has at its venues. He'll argue that more people die on the highway than at tracks, that he believes when it's your time, "it's your time."
He may even argue that he just as easily could get hurt in a Cup car. He'd only have to point to Denny Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season after suffering a back injury at Auto Club Speedway in California.
But why take the unnecessary risk in a lower-tier series where you are racing for fun?
"I get to race with the best stock-car drivers in the world every weekend here for three days a week," Stewart said at Michigan International Speedway, after Leffler's death. "In the evenings, I get to go do something that's the polar opposite end of the spectrum and it's a challenge because it's the opposite end of the spectrum for us.
"I didn't even understand it until I got in one the first time of what it's really like."
Yes, driving 910-hp cars that weigh 1,400 pounds is a rush. But do it when you're 61, like Norm Benning, who gave Stewart the biggest thrill at Eldora when he transferred into the main event and flipped off the driver who tried to keep him from getting there.
Do that when you're 71, like Morgan Shepherd, who recently set the record for being the oldest driver to compete in a Cup race.
Don't do it when it could cost you one of your last opportunities to win another Cup championship. The standings are too tight. You may be only one point outside of the top 10 guaranteed a spot in the Chase, but you're also only 14 points removed from falling to 14th, only 25 points from losing the wild card to Newman, with six races left in the regular season.
Stewart will say that is the worst suggestion he has heard all week, but would he say that if he misses the Chase?
As for what he defined the worst question of the week -- whether Indianapolis Motor Speedway or NASCAR could do anything to increase passing at the historic track that had only one on-track pass for the lead -- this was vintage Smoke.
"Look up racing in the dictionary and tell me what it says, then look up passing," he said. "We're racing here. That's all I'm going to say."
He then proceeded to rant for 228 more words on how if "you want to see passing, we can go out on [Interstate] 465 and pass all you want."
His point is that racing is defined by more than passing, that it includes strategy, such as the two-tire stop that Newman used to beat Jimmie Johnson, that an event shouldn't be criticized because a team has done its job and found a dominant package.
And he's wrong.
If you're sitting in the stands or watching on television for three to four hours, a good race often is defined by passing. Not only was there no passing for the lead at Indy, there wasn't much passing back in the pack.
That is defined as a parade.
Which brings us back to Eldora, where Stewart's bite began its vacation. The show was spectacular. Trucks were sometimes five-wide. They were slipping and sliding and banging -- and passing.
The winner, Austin Dillon, came all the way from 19th without the benefit of pit strategy -- because there was none.
The runner-up, Kyle Larson, came from 13th.
Afterwards, Stewart said, "If you didn't enjoy that kind of racing, you don't know what real racing is."
Real racing has passing.
Watching Stewart on that night made you better understand why he competes at dirt tracks, sometimes three to five nights a week. There is no place he'd rather be when he's not competing in a NASCAR event.
But for now, he needs to remain a spectator, as he did at Eldora, and focus on the Chase and the questions that come from those races.
The last thing he wants to have happen is somebody asking him why he didn't make it.