[UPDATE, 10:15 ET: Tony Stewart will not be racing on Sunday at Watkins Glen. Stewart-Haas competition director Greg Zipadelli announced that Regan Smith will step in and race the No. 14.]
It is inconceivable that this is even a matter of discussion. But as of 8 a.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, less than nine hours after Kevin Ward Jr. was declared dead following an on-track collision with Tony Stewart's sprint car, Stewart's team indicated he would be racing Sunday at Watkins Glen.
This is flat-out wrong. And if Tony Stewart and his team can't see that, then NASCAR needs to step in and park Stewart.
"We're business as usual today," Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli told USA Today Sports. NASCAR types specialize in stringing together cliches, but this is one Zipadelli will want back. "Business as usual?" Hours after a kid died in a wreck involving your driver? Seriously?
Stewart is not a heartless man. Quite the contrary, as a guy who races against young drivers anywhere, anytime, he's surely devastated by this. But given the situation, now is not a time for him to use the race track as personal grief therapy.
This is not about Stewart's guilt or innocence. This is about respecting the loss of life in an accident involving a NASCAR driver, an accident that will have happened barely 15 hours before the green flag flies today at Watkins Glen.
NASCAR has a unilateral power over its teams and competitors that even the NCAA envies. And with that in mind, NASCAR should remember this: There is no good reason, none at all, for Stewart to be racing today. And if his team can't figure that out, NASCAR needs to step in and put a halt to this.
Even if you're so tunnel-blind as to be only worried about Stewart's dwindling chances to make the Chase this season, that's not reason in itself to keep racing. Thanks to NASCAR's new "playoff" system, Stewart still has four races left to win a race and lock in his Chase spot. The system is set up exactly so that a driver doesn't have to get behind the wheel at all costs. NASCAR has the right to use its power to keep Stewart Chase-eligible if he was to miss the race. He attempted to qualify the car, which should satisfy NASCAR's criteria on that score.
In one way, you can't blame Stewart for wanting to race. In the midst of tragedy, we cling to those parts of our life that mean the most to us. And so it's not surprising that drivers return to their cars soon after tragedy, that Kyle Petty drove a month after the on-track death of his son Adam in 2000 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. a week after the death of his father in 2001. But this is so different from those situations, so much closer.
Tony Stewart loves to say that racing is the most important thing in his life. For one day, at least, he needs to broaden his focus. This isn't just about his pain.
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- Tony Stewart
- Greg Zipadelli