Tony Stewart’s words came back to haunt him immediately.
Annoyed by the coverage of his flip in a sprint car race last week, Stewart told reporters Friday they needed to watch more videos to learn about that style of racing.
“When they wreck, they get upside down like that,” he said. “That was not a big deal. … I guarantee you there were 15 to 20 guys across the country that flipped just like that this weekend and were just fine just like we were. If it’s bad, we will let you guys know.”.
But this time, Stewart was not fine. This time, it was bad.
Stewart flipped again in a sprint car race late Monday night and broke his leg, requiring surgery and leaving him with an injury that could force him to miss NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and a shot at a fourth championship.
He’ll miss at least this week’s race at Watkins Glen, but it seems likely a broken leg comes with a long recovery period. With only five races left until the Chase, will he even race again this season?
There are more questions than answers right now about Stewart’s specific situation, but the broader question about NASCAR drivers racing on dirt in their spare time will only grow louder.
This was Stewart’s third sprint car crash in as many weeks. He was involved in a multi-car crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that sent two drivers to the hospital, but he was unhurt. Following last week’s flip at Ohsweken Speedway, a dirt track in Ontario, Canada, he raced the next night at the same track and finished fifth.
Stewart’s injury is exactly what team owners worry about. They sign a sponsor to go with a driver, and both the team and sponsor are heavily invested in that one individual.
If that person isn’t in the car, there’s much to be lost.
Fair or not, this could cause team owners to tighten the reins on drivers dashing around the country to race sprint cars. Should Stewart miss significant time, his example will be held up as the cautionary tale for why Cup stars should stay away from more dangerous forms of racing.
And, yes, sprint cars are more dangerous. The sprint car community bristles every time the harsh spotlight shines in that direction, but those cars and tracks don’t have the same safety standards NASCAR does.
On Sunday, Sprint Car Hall of Famer Kramer Williamson became at least the seventh sprint car driver to die in the last 14 months.
And in June, former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, a close friend of Stewart’s who once roomed with him while working his way up the sport’s ladder, was killed in a sprint car crash.
NASCAR hasn’t lost a driver due to an on-track crash since seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt died in 2001.
“Our foremost concern is with Tony’s health and recovery,” NASCAR said in a statement. “We’re in close contact with his team and they will provide further information as it becomes available.”.
That Stewart — a passionate, devoted advocate of sprint cars and owner of Eldora Speedway, a track where NASCAR just enjoyed a successful return to dirt racing with a Truck race — will be the cause of more questions about drivers moonlighting might hurt him even more than the broken leg.
It seems highly likely, though, that once he recovers he’ll continue to race both types of vehicles for as long as possible.
As Stewart has said throughout his career, he loves to race. Period.
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck.