The practice of top-tier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver supplementing his/her “need for speed” with extracurricular racing has caught criticism the past several years. But most of that criticism has come from fans of the NASCAR Nationwide Series who claim that these Sprint Cup “interlopers” take away attention, points and purse money from regulars in the series. And then there are those who are sure that racing so much in other series takes away focus from the task of winning the top prize at the Sprint Cup level, a.k.a. winning the Sprint Cup. You know who I’m talking about — those who believe that the reason Kyle Busch hasn’t yet won a Cup is because he’s distracted too often by competing in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. Reigning champion Brad Keselowski was on the receiving end of loud criticism this past weekend when he opted to travel back and forth between Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., and Iowa Speedway in Newton to compete in a stand-alone Nationwide race.
I’m not saying it’s wrong or it’s right. As far as I’m concerned it’s a personal decision, and each side — to run other races when a driver gets a chance, or to focus solely on one series and one series alone — has its positives and its negatives. It all depends on the individual driver and team.
This week, though, Tony Stewart unintentionally shed light on another thing to consider when deciding where and how often to race. No, Stewart’s not regularly seen climbing behind the wheel of a truck in the Camping World Truck Series, and he only runs a small handful of races per year in the Nationwide Series. Actually, I wouldn’t consider Stewart’s yearly starts in the Nationwide Series even a handful. But Stewart does race a lot during the week in sprint cars. He isn’t criticized as much as say a Busch or a Keselowski when it comes to his extracurricular racing. Maybe NASCAR fans don’t notice as much that he’s running sprint car races during the week. Or maybe they don’t care because he’s not taking attention away from the Nationwide and Truck series regulars.
If some fans were unaware of Stewart’s extracurricular activity before, they probably know about it now. Or at least they’ll know about it Sunday when Max Papis, not Stewart, climbs into the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to run the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen. In case you haven’t heard, Stewart broke two bones in his right leg during a sprint car race on Monday night, and therefore, won’t be in his Sprint Cup Series car this weekend.
Missing this weekend’s race could result in Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, missing this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Heading into the weekend, Stewart’s on the proverbial Chase bubble — outside the top-10 in points and only a single win to his credit, so far, this season. Two other drivers, namely Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, are between 11th and 20th in points with a win apiece. If Stewart, Truex and Newman don’t win another race and someone else doesn’t win two of the next five, the two Chase wild cards will be determined by points.
As they stand right now, Stewart would get the first wild card spot, sitting 11th in points, five points behind 10th-place driver, Greg Biffle. If Stewart were able to race on Sunday, he would have a legitimate shot at moving into the top-10, or at least stay ahead of both Truex and Newman.
Truex is just 10 points behind Stewart heading into Watkins Glen. Barring a dismal performance for Truex on Sunday, there’s a good chance he’ll move ahead of Stewart in the standings. Of course, that would just move Stewart to the second wild card spot. But hold on, there’s Newman to consider. Newman is 17 points behind Stewart. A Watkins Glen race in which Newman finishes about mid-pack or better would move him ahead of Stewart.
Missing one race wouldn’t, necessarily, mean the end of Stewart’s 2013 championship hopes. There will still be four races after The Glen before the Chase cutoff. With the championship format the way it is, and given the position Stewart is currently in, there would be a chance to, possibly, bounce back and contend for a championship. It’s probably not a good idea to count Stewart out if there’s a mathematical shot. Stewart pretty much counted himself out of championship consideration in 2011, and in case you forgot how that season ended up — he claimed his third Sprint Cup. Of course, he didn’t miss a race that year, but still.
But hold the phone. Chances are, Stewart’s going to miss more than one race. His Stewart-Haas Racing team also expects him to miss the following race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., and team competition director Greg Zipadellia has lamented that Stewart could miss several races. Now that possibility of still getting into the Chase doesn’t look so good, does it?
So is all this extracurricular racing worth it? To Stewart, probably so. After all, he’d probably say that it’s a part of racing and it’s the risk that drivers take every time they climb behind the wheel. But it is something to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to race in other series on the side.
Maybe that’s something Stewart can ponder when he discusses what might have been with fellow driver and unlikely Chase candidate Denny Hamlin (note: Hamlin’s sidelining injury came in a Sprint Cup race).
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