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For drivers like Stewart, 38 races not enough

NASCAR.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- Mere humans will never be able to understand.

"You mortals have got to learn," Tony Stewart lectured Friday at Pocono Raceway. "You guys (in the media) need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff. It's starting to get annoying this week about that. That was just an average sprint car wreck. When they wreck, they get upside down like that. That was not a big deal."

The three-time champion of the Sprint Cup Series was referring to his spectacular crash in a winged sprint car at a Canadian short track on Monday night, one day after Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman captured NASCAR's coveted Brickyard event at Indianapolis. Battling for the lead at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, Stewart's vehicle apparently struck something, and then rolled roughly five times.

Stewart thankfully emerged unhurt, but video of the accident quickly made the rounds on the Internet, and the crash was the first thing the 48-time Sprint Cup race winner was asked about at his regular media availability at Pocono.

"I promise you, if there's something to report, I'll let you know," Stewart told reporters assembled at the rear of his No. 14 hauler. "But I guarantee you, there were 15, 20 guys across the country who flipped just like that this weekend. We're just fine. If it's bad, we'll let you guys know. But that was not bad at all. I mean, I raced the next night and ran fifth in a World of Outlaws race. So that wasn't bad."

Indeed, Stewart competed again Tuesday night at the same track, and Thursday night at a dirt track in Paducah, Ky. Although sprint-car racing has come under some scrutiny in the wake of Jason Leffler's death in June at a dirt track in New Jersey, Stewart is only the latest in a long line of established NASCAR drivers who stay close to their roots by competing on week nights at short tracks -- a lineage that stretches from Ken Schrader to Stewart to Kyle Larson to Kyle Busch, who has super late model events scheduled in Canada on Monday and Tuesday night of next week.

"It's just the only opportunity you get to race your fun stuff. Your golf game," Busch said on pit road after his qualifying lap at Pocono. "Tony Stewart's golf game is his sprint cars. He loves to go do that. My super late models are my golf game, I love to do that. ? I like to be able to get out and go do those things, but the only real opportunity is during the week. And you've got to do it during the summer, because anytime you get too close to the Chase, you just have too much going on."

Not all drivers feel the same way. Jeff Gordon came from the same sprint-car ranks as Stewart, but these days rarely, if ever, competes outside of the Sprint Cup tour. In the early 1990s, when he was just beginning to break into NASCAR, Gordon still kept one foot in the U.S. Auto Club ranks where he had been a star in sprint, midget and silver crown cars. As he grew older and started a family, the four-time Sprint Cup champion began to get less enjoyment out of extracurricular competition, and eventually even cut out Nationwide events.

But given his background, Gordon understands the allure that keeps drawing Stewart to the short tracks.

"Sprint cars to me are some of the most exciting, fun race cars there are to drive. In anything that you do, you can put yourself at risk. I think he knows the risks versus the rewards and chooses to do that, and I think that's awesome. And he certainly is very impressive when he gets in them, how competitive he is ?. I certainly look up to him in that way, because I raced those guys in sprint cars and know how difficult that is. Especially when you're not doing it all the time," Gordon said.

"If he was a young driver that was coming to work for Hendrick Motorsports, I would try to discourage him from doing that, because that's an investment from us as a team. And we ask a lot from our sponsors and our team and everything. But he's the team owner. There's no asking that out of him. And you don't want to take away that joy that those individuals have. You want them to make those choices on their own and just understand what they're getting themselves into. Some of the younger guys maybe don't always appreciate that, but somebody like Tony I think does and handles himself well with it."

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick are a couple who personify the extremes. Stenhouse once competed for Stewart in USAC, and like his mentor still can't get enough time in sprint cars even though he's now driving at NASCAR's top level. Meanwhile, there's Patrick, who came up in go-karts and formula cars, and has no desire to race every night of the week herself. But she can appreciate what drives her boyfriend, as well as her boss at SHR.

"I do understand obviously with how much Ricky loves sprint car racing and racing on dirt, that flipping and crashing is very much a part of that sport," Patrick said. "You catch the berm or clip tires -- it's an open-wheel car. As Tony would say, it's the open-wheel car. It's the original open-wheel car. And with how much they race? Some of them race 130 times a year. Some of them race 80 or 90 times a year. There are a lot of chances for accidents when that happens. It's not for me, but those who love it very much love it."

Patrick's reaction when she saw the video clip of Stewart rolling at Ohsweken? "I think he must really love his sprint-car racing," she said. Patrick added the very topic of Stenhouse wanting to race every night came up when the couple visited with Kenny Chesney before the country music star performed Thursday night in Charlotte.

"I just don't have an interest in racing every single night," Patrick said. "But coming from sprint car racing where you race 80, 90 times a year like he used to, 38 is just nothing. So Kenny was talking about when he was younger -- because ol' Ricky, he's young, you know -- how he felt like he could perform every single night and do the same thing every day. You know, you get older, and maybe you don't have that. Maybe you do. I feel like those sprint car drivers, they just love their racing. They love racing every night. I didn't come from that background. I watched it, my dad was in it, he raced it, and then he worked on the cars, and my mom and dad and sister would go watch on Sunday nights. But I just didn't come from 90 races a year."

Stewart did, and still competes whenever he gets the chance. In fact, his original intent was to race every day this week except Wednesday, when Stewart-Haas had scheduled a test that was canceled due to rain. Of course, that was until he had to cut out two events slated for this weekend, because the car he planned to drive was still damaged from Monday night's crash.

Now that hurt.

"That was the worst part of the week," Stewart said, "when I was told I wasn't going to be allowed to race this weekend."

 

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