Tony Stewart has caused a raucous in the NASCAR world this weekend heading into Richmond. Stewart, who is in his final season as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, suffered a L1 vertebrae injury back in January made news two times on Thursday.
First, around 11 am Eastern, Tony Stewart announced that he would return back to competition this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. Stewart will have only missed eight races in a quicker-than-expected comeback. Although he will return to the track this weekend, at Talladega Superspeedway, Stewart will practice, qualify, and start his Chevrolet in the Geico 500, where Ty Dillon will take the reins. Stewart went to Twitter to make the announcement stating, “Well, the long wait is over. I’ll be back in my Mobil 1 Chevy this weekend at Richmond. I can’t wait to race again. The Dr’s said my scans ‘looked much better than they thought they would after 3 months.’ So they cleared me. Thanks for everyone’s support & well wishes.”
About an hour after the announcement, NASCAR announced that Stewart would be granted a waiver to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. "NASCAR received the appropriate medical clearance documentation allowing Tony Stewart to resume normal racing activities. We also have granted the request from Stewart-Haas Racing for a waiver for Tony to be eligible to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As he begins his final season, we wish Tony the best of luck,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer.
Nearly a few hours later of the announce of Tony’s return, NASCAR placed an absurd $35,000 fine for his comments earlier in the week about lug nuts. Tony expressed safety and concern for the tactics teams are taking with their tires on pit stops. Stewart denounced NASCAR for leaving their mandatory five lug nut rule from years past. In an event with Mobil1 on Wednesday this week, Stewart stated “You see the problem getting worse. Well if you see a problem getting worse like that, where’s the bottom of that trend going to happen? It’s going to happen when somebody gets hurt, and that’s going to be one of the largest black eyes I can see NASCAR getting when they’ve worked so hard and done such a good job to make it safe. In this one particular area, they are totally dropping the ball on and I feel like really made a grossly bad decision on.”
Late Thursday Evening, the NASCAR Driver’s Council released a statement about the Stewart penalty. The statement from the council was released by councilmember Denny Hamlin. The statement announced that the nine members of the council were going to equally pay for the fine. In a statement to NBC Sports, the Driver’s Council stated, “We as drivers believe Tony has the right to speak his opinion on topics that pertain to a sport that he has spent nearly two decades helping build as both a driver and an owner. While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a Council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine."
Today at Richmond International Raceway, drivers were supportive of Tony and his comments. Many drivers continue to question where the line is of making comments to not make NASCAR mad.
After activities at Richmond, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition, Scott Miller, spoke to the media about where NASCAR stands. It was announced that NASCAR is reevaluating the policy for lug nuts because of the driver’s concern. Miller was adamant that there are rules in place to penalize teams for loose wheels if the lug nuts are not tightened correctly. “Technology is the way to see us home on the matter,” said Scott Miller.
This has been a crazy 72-hour news cycle. Here are my thoughts:
First, I am glad to see that Tony Stewart is returning to the track. NASCAR is better when Tony Stewart is around. Hopefully, this return will bring a boost to attendance and TV ratings, which have been at an all-time low, but have beat other sports. I wish Tony the best in his final season.
Second, Tony Stewart does know how to keep people on their toes. This is the second time in 2016 that fans have been blindsided from announcements from Stewart-Haas Racing. The first happening earlier in the season when it was announced that SHR would transfer manufacturers from Ford to Chevrolet. The announcement of his return was also a shocker because at the day before, Stewart was adamant that he did not know when he was going to return.
Third, NASCAR needs to get thicker skin. Why would you fine a driver who has legitimate concerns about safety more than someone who stated that you “fix” races? Why is one penalty more than the other? The concerns from Stewart about safety are valid. Why did you not fine the sports most popular driver, Dale Jr., when he basically made the same comments as Stewart? NASCAR wants the drivers to be open about their concerns, but this penalty basically gives the mentality that “If it is something that NASCAR does not like, then they will penalize.” NASCAR has taken away the personality of the drivers. To me, the penalty shows that NASCAR is not taking the concerns very seriously. NASCAR should rescind the penalty handed down to Stewart after today’s statement from Steve Miller.
Lastly, I applaud the Driver’s Council for taking a stand against the rule of NASCAR. I was amazed to hear that the members agreed to equally pay this penalty for Stewart. My hope is that this council will continue to take a stand on important issues facing NASCAR.