There’s no set date for Tony Stewart’s return to the driver’s seat in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet for 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but according to multiple previously published reports, driver and team have a goal date of May 21, the date of the Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The first points-paying race after that date will be the Coca-Cola 600, also at Charlotte the following weekend.
Coincidence or not, that’s when Kyle Busch began his 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship run. Of course, Busch and Stewart are different and their injuries were/are very different. Heck their body locations are even different. But because of Busch’s return date last season and Stewart’s goal return date are at the exact same point this season, they make for a comparison opporunity regarding NASCAR’s call to extend or not extend a waiver.
I’m sure you know what kind of w aiver I’m talking about here — the kind of waiver that would exempt Stewart from having to qualify for or compete in all 26 regular season races to be Chase for the Sprint Cup-eligible. You know, the same type of waiver that was extended to Busch last season. Of course, even with a waiver, Stewart would still have to win and climb into the top-30 of the points standings in the races he does run.
This is only a fantasy comparison, of sorts, because it’s not known when Stewart will actually return. But I’m going to base this on Stewart’s goal of May 21.
As I mentioned in this blog space last season when the official announcement came from NASCAR that Busch was going to receive a waiver, I was against a driver receiving said waiver after missing so many races (Busch missed 11). I still feel the same way. The arguement made in favor of a waiver in such a circumstance usually has something to do with it not being fair to the race team to deny the waiver, and in stick-and-ball sports, teams aren’t eliminated from championship contention when a star player is sidelined by injury.
Those stick-and-ball sports are team sports, not individual sports. Before you get your panties in a proverbial bunch, I do believe wholeheartedly that NASCAR also is, indeed, a team sport, but that championship that we celebrated Busch for winning last season was the drivers’ championship. In NASCAR, unlike in those stick-and-ball sports, championships for drivers and teams are separate. Owners’ titles are the team championships in NASCAR (see many Xfinity and Camping World Truck series championships in recent years). Therefore, a driver not being Chase eligible does not mean a team isn’t.
I still hold to this opinion, but I think NASCAR kind of painted itself into one of those proverbial boxes with the Busch waiver. If Stewart misses the same number of races as Busch did, it’s only fair that he receive a waiver, too.
Arguements against a Stewart waiver after missing 11 races, even from people who agreed with the Busch waiver after 11 races missed usually mention that Busch was injured in a NASCAR-sanctioned race when he hit a non-protected wall, and NASCAR was blamed for the wall not being protected by SAFER barrier. Stewart, on the other hand, was driving an all-terrain vehicle across a desert during the off-season, on his own time.
NASCAR may have been responsible for the lack of a SAFER barrier at Busch’s point of impact at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway last year, and that Xfinity race was a NASCAR-sanctioned race. But the Xfinity Series isn’t Busch’s bread and butter, so to speak. He’s a Sprint Cup Series driver, so wasn’t he also taking in some extra-curricular activity on his own time?
I’m still, by no means, a fan of a driver being championship-eligible after missing a double-digit number of races. But in the name of fairness, since Busch got a waiver, NASCAR pretty much would have to offer Stewart the same courtesy if he misses the same number of races. After all, judging by fans’ outcries over the years, don’t they want consistency in NASCAR rule-enforcement?
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