NASCAR fans are some of the most passionate, loyal followers in all of sports. However, they don’t always get along.
A quick search of the hashtag #NASCAR on Twitter or a glance at the NASCAR.com comments is all it takes for one to notice the frequent division of fanbases, and while they’re often knowledgeable about the topics they’re discussing, fans don’t always do the best job of fairly portraying both sides of the argument. Without a neutral party to take a broad view of the subject, a lot of details can be lost in the shuffle.
Enter our newest column at Frontstretch.
As part of the new feature, Two-Headed Monster, Aaron Bearden will take the time to understand an argument that’s creating a ripple among the NASCAR fanbase in the fairest way he knows: by arguing both sides.
The debut of this column comes at an interesting time for NASCAR: a time of change. The few remaining stars of yesteryear – Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and most recently Jeff Gordon – have begun stepping away from the cockpit and moving to other roles in the racing community.
With eager young drivers such as NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott set to replace them and Father Time beginning to show his effects on their bodies, their decision to step away is justified.
Most stars from the late 1990s and early 2000s have either retired or announced their retirement, but one major name remains: Tony Stewart.
Stewart, a legend in the racing community, has succeeded at the upper echelons of all forms of motorsport during his 20-plus-year career. He’s won championships in both NASCAR and IndyCar, earned victories in USAC and World of Outlaws sprint car competition and even stepped into ownership roles for multiple teams, tracks and a sprint car series.
Stewart’s list of accomplishments is seemingly endless, but at the ripe age of 44, his days as a successful driver are numbered. And with recent on-track struggles, many are starting to question whether it’s time for Stewart to step away from his car and find a new venue in which to participate in the sport. Recent rumors would have you believe that Stewart will be out of the No. 14 starting in 2017, with Clint Bowyer serving as a potential replacement.
The thought of a Cup Series race without Stewart or Gordon in the field is a painful one to imagine, but the question must be asked: should Stewart indeed hang up the driving suit, or is he due for a comeback?
Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.
This Week: Should Tony Stewart Retire?
Opinion One: Tony Should Retire
The fence that Tony Stewart famously climbed following his first Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 was taken down this week as part of the track’s $90 million Project 100 renovation.
Despite everything he’s done for our sport, it would be best if Stewart stepped down with it.
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, has provided some of the most exciting moments in NASCAR history, including a thrilling five-win Chase in 2011 that saw him outrun competitor Carl Edwards for the race win and championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, in the four years following that legendary run, Stewart has provided little more than controversy.
Always a fan of short-track racing, Stewart, or Smoke as his fans so lovingly call him, has frequently traveled to dirt tracks across the country in-between dates on the NASCAR calendar.
For years, it wasn’t an issue. Stewart inspired competitors, brought fans and revenue to local tracks and earned a few victories along the way.
That all changed in 2013, and again in 2014, when Stewart was involved in two career-changing incidents while competing in sprint cars. The first, a vicious accident at Southern Iowa Speedway, left Smoke out of his car with a broken leg. The second, a fatal incident with Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, left Stewart with mental scars and lawsuits that still exist today.
Stewart has managed comebacks from both accidents to return to his No. 14 Chevrolet, but the results show that the Hoosier has never fully recovered.
Since returning to his car at the beginning of 2014, Stewart has managed only three top-10 finishes. Stewart’s 20.0 average finish in 2014 was the worst of his career by nearly four positions, but even it looks stellar compared to Smoke’s pedestrian 24.3 average finish to date this season.
Worse yet, Stewart seems to be lacking confidence, something he’s never dealt with in the past. Throughout his career, Stewart has always carried around a certain swagger in the garage area. Both he and his competitors knew that he could rally off one or even multiple wins at a moment’s notice.
This season, Stewart’s greatest excitement came from a fuel-mileage top 10 at Pocono Raceway.
In a presser to promote the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, which Stewart owns, the veteran made a point to illustrate that his No. 14 team’s issues were with the driver, not the team. While teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and even Danica Patrick have driven to varying but generally successful results, Stewart has found himself struggling to come to grips with the new rules package, resorting to angry tirades over the in-car radio as his teammates lap him on a seemingly weekly basis.
For the three-time champion to be unable to maintain the speed necessary to stay on the lead lap is pretty telling of how far he’s fallen. Stewart is a shell of himself, unable to find the mental or physical ability to extract speed from his cars.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this occur. Richard Petty struggled for the final decade of his career. Darrell Waltrip failed to find speed throughout the ’90s as he fielded his own team. Even Martin, one of the fittest drivers in NASCAR, often looked fatigued and checked-out in his final full season with Hendrick Motorsports.
Stewart has reached the twilight stage of his career, and with a legacy that includes 48 victories and three championships, there’s no shame in stepping down. Besides, with Eldora, Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Stewart Racing (Stewart’s dirt program) and the All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series, Smoke has plenty of things to keep him busy in retirement.
Now’s the time, Tony. Pass on the torch.
Opinion 2: Smoke Should Continue On
One of NASCAR’s most popular drivers is struggling. He’s putting up the worst results of his career while his teammates earn wins and championships, and fans and critics alike are beginning to wonder why he’s still in the car.
But enough about Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2009. Let’s talk about Stewart.
Yes, Smoke is going through the roughest patch statistically of his career, and no one knows what goes through Stewart’s mind following the incident with Ward Jr. other than him. But that doesn’t mean it’s time for the Columbus, Indiana, native to throw in the towel.
Dale Earnhardt suffered his worst season in nearly a decade in 1997, going winless and posting his worst average finish since 1992 as he struggled to find speed down the stretch. Fans and critics began debating whether Earnhardt, then 46, was getting too old to drive the car.
Earnhardt proceeded to dominate the season-opening Daytona 500 the next year and claim the biggest win of his career. The Intimidator would go on to earn five victories and finish as high as second in the points championship from 1999 through 2000. Earnhardt entered 2001 as a favorite to claim a record-breaking eighth championship, despite planning to turn 50 during the season.
Earnhardt would never get his chance at the eighth title following a tragic incident in the 2001 Daytona 500, but his comeback before the crash was clear to all that followed the sport.
Stewart’s story entering 2016 could share a lot of similarities with Earnhardt. Despite being a stellar restrictor-plate driver and three-time champion, Stewart is still searching for a Daytona 500 win. He is still in the process of recovering from an injury, much like Earnhardt in 1997, as he tried to heal from a broken collarbone and dislocated sternum sustained in a 1996 crash at Talladega. At 44, Stewart is two years younger than Earnhardt was when he went through his dry streak.
Earnhardt comparisons aside, Stewart has shown reason to optimistic about a comeback. The Hoosier has begun to show speed, most evident in qualifying, where Stewart has placed his No. 14 Chevrolet inside of the top five in four of the last six races.
The stronger qualifying performances have led to improved results on-track. While Stewart has yet to compete for the wins he so desperately craves, Smoke has managed four top-15 finishes in the last 10 races after earning only two in the first 15 events. Stewart’s improvement was highlighted at Darlington, where he led for the first time on a non-restrictor plate track this season before finishing 15th.
Despite having 48 wins, there’s still much for Stewart to accomplish. He’s still searching for a Daytona 500 victory and is sdue wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. With as much as a decade of competitive years left, it’s just too soon for Stewart to retire.
Smoke’s dedicated fanbase created a phrase to describe how they felt about their favorite driver’s potential comeback following his 2013 injury, and the statement holds true now more than ever.
Smoke will rise.