By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.—Tony Stewart’s broken bones have sparked intense debate about the wisdom of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers indulging in extracurricular racing.
Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a Sprint Car accident Monday night in Iowa. After two surgeries, Stewart is recuperating in a North Carolina hospital and is sidelined indefinitely from his primary ride in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Chevrolet SS.
The accident almost certainly will cost Stewart a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and deprive him of the opportunity to battle for a fourth championship in the series. Conceivably, it could cost him the rest of the season.
Though much has been written that is critical of Stewart’s frequent racing outside the Cup series, consensus among racers in the NASCAR garage has been overwhelmingly supportive of the driver nicknamed “Smoke.”
Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, expressed the prevailing opinion Friday at Watkins Glen.
“I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around, and it’s troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles,” Johnson said. “We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles.
“And then you look at the race tracks that he owns and his involvement with. The guy has done so much for our sport, and of course we don’t want to see him injured, but I’ve been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it.”
Ultimately, though, Stewart’s accident may give major sponsors more reason to try to restrict drivers from engaging in outside racing that could sideline them from their primary responsibilities.
“It might,” Johnson acknowledged. “You have an opportunity to evaluate after you go through a situation like this and I’ll be interested, like all, to see what Tony’s sponsors say and then clearly, (Stewart-Haas co-owner) Gene Haas’s opinion on it all. But again, they knew the risks going into it on the front side.
“So, I wouldn’t expect a huge change and I really hope there wouldn’t be. On my side, my sponsor (Lowe’s) has been very supportive of other series that I’ve wanted to race, and it’s really been my decision to not race other events; just family time and to be around and to experience that stuff and not be racing all the time.”
Johnson believes any shift in the attitude toward extracurricular racing may be confined to Stewart’s specific situation.
“I don’t think it’s going to change the environment for other drivers and sponsors, because we have an approval process that we’ve always had to go through,” Johnson said. “I mean, this doesn’t open up something new that hasn’t been discussed or thought about amongst driver/owner contracts or driver/sponsor contracts.
“Any time we want to run another vehicle, we have to go through the process and get approval. So I don’t think it’s going to change that. Tony’s role might change a little bit. I hope it doesn’t, again. But that would be really just their team looking at it.”