By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
For a sport to run fairly there should be one set of rules, and every competitor should be required to abide by them. It sounds like a solid theory, but for the past 18 years, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Tony Stewart has seemingly been allowed to play by a separate set of rules than his fellow drivers.
That reality continued this past Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway.
Ryan Newman had raced for 25 weeks to put himself, his sponsor and his race team in a position to make it into the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Newman more than likely wasn’t going to lock himself into the Chase that night, but thanks to an absolute bonehead move by Stewart on lap 363 we will never know for sure.
Going into turn one, Stewart chop blocked Newman. This ruined Newman’s corner and caused him to have a different angle on the exit of the corner. Newman made slight contact with Stewart as the two exited turn two. Upset by the contact, Stewart decided to end Newman’s race and any shot that the Indiana-native had at winning this year’s championship, and in turn Stewart crashed his own No. 14 Chevrolet SS to prove his point.
Upon exiting his car, Newman was pissed and rightfully so, and said some not-so-kind words about Stewart.
Newman’s frustrations were understandable. A person, who Newman thought of as a good friend had just put both of their lives in harms way over slight contact in a turn at a short track in a NASCAR race, something Stewart has spent an entire career advocating against. Any time the topic of safety has ever been brought up in a media center Stewart has lamented that we cannot take too many steps to make this sport safer.
When Stewart was questioned about the crash, he admitted that he took Newman out on purpose.
“I ran him down the backstretch and I wrecked myself doing it. So it wasn’t like I wrecked him and didn’t wreck myself, I took myself out by doing that,” Stewart said. “I think for 370-some-odd laps of getting run into by different guys I held my cool pretty good, he doesn’t think so, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over his opinion tonight.”
Purposely crashing a competitor isn’t the best way to go about making a sport safer.
To add to Stewart’s misguided safety methods, this marked the second-straight week that Stewart seemingly lost his cool and wrecked a fellow competitor on purpose. He also wiped out Brian Scott a week earlier at Darlington for no reason while going down the straightaway.
The Scott incident caused NASCAR to call Stewart to the Sprint Cup hauler after the race. The incident with Newman? NASCAR didn’t bat an eye. In fact, NASCAR intends to simply talk to Stewart and Newman before they get behind the wheel at Chicago.
First, Newman did nothing wrong, yet people are trying to take him to the woodshed for speaking his mind. Yet those same people who are bent out of shape by Newman’s comments probably stayed quiet when Stewart was busy ripping apart a three-time champion of the sport back in 2004.
Second, Stewart for the second week in a row had done the one thing that less than 12 months ago was considered the worst infraction in Sprint Cup history.
Last year when Matt Kenseth retaliated against Joey Logano by crashing him at Martinsville, NASCAR slapped Kenseth with a multi-race suspension. This marked the first time a Sprint Cup Series driver had ever been suspended for an incident that happened on track in a race. For comparison’s sake: Logano was in the thick of the championship hunt, as was Newman mathematically Saturday night at Richmond. Yet Stewart will receive absolutely no penalties as a result of his actions at Richmond. And that’s plain wrong.
I know Stewart competing for a title in his final season is a hell of a story, and I think it’s a fitting end to an illustrious career. But how Stewart has gone about his business the last couple of weeks is absolutely inexcusable.
That being said, the fact that Stewart will not face penalties after Richmond shouldn’t come as a surprise. This definitely isn’t the first instance of rules being bent for Stewart, it’s just the latest example.
The yellow line rule at superspeedway tracks, which was created after Dale Earnhardt’s last lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, is pretty cut and dry.
The rule states that you cannot pass a car while you’re positioned below the line. Also you can’t force a driver below the yellow line while they’re attempting to pass you for position. In 2008, as the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega Superspeedway for the fall race, Stewart was suffering through a miserable winless drought. In the closing laps though, Stewart was in contention for his first win of the season.
Coming to the green-white-checkered restart, Stewart just had to hold off rookie driver Regan Smith to secure a win.
Smith stalked Stewart over the final two laps, and coming out of turn four Smith made his move for the win. Coming into the tri-oval, Smith looked low and Stewart blocked. To avoid spinning or crashing Stewart, Smith veered to the left under the yellow line. Smith would beat Stewart to the line after being forced below the yellow line.
NASCAR ruled after several minutes that Stewart was the winner of the race, and they stripped Smith of his first win. This ruling, which actually went against the rule in the rule book then led to a slew of final lap crashes over the next few years at Talladega that put lives of drivers in danger because they knew they had to hold their ground when being blocked on the final lap so they could win the race.
Had Smith made that move on anyone other than Stewart that day would the outcome have been different? We will never know, but it’s interesting and it’s not the only time Stewart has benefited from a questionable judgement call to win a race.
In the 2002 Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, Stewart won after a controversial restart. Stewart jumped the restart illegally and left the field in the dust. NASCAR officials would go on to uphold Stewart’s win even with replays showing that Stewart’s restart was out of line.
A few years earlier, NASCAR black flagged Rusty Wallace late in an event at Martinsville for the same exact thing Stewart did that day at the Glen. Wallace who led most of the race that day in 1997, went on to finish a disappointing 15th.
There are several more of these instances of weird judgement calls, but you definitely get the point.
Now let’s flashback even further to the 2000 season. Stewart had numerous on-track encounters with several drivers including Jeff Gordon who Stewart crashed with while battling for the lead at Watkins Glen. After getting out of their cars in the garage area, Stewart began a profanity-laced tirade. Anger was obviously a problem for the sophomore driver, but nothing was said. Stewart raged on.
A year later Stewart was the recipient of Gordon’s famed bump and run move in the closing laps at Bristol. Stewart, who was angered, opted to spin Gordon out on pit road after the race. Stewart was fined and placed on probation, but this would do little to curb his anger issues.
A few months later at the Summer Daytona race, Stewart (who refused to pit for the black flag in the closing laps) got into a heated exchange with a NASCAR official after the race. From there he also got into a fight with a journalist, which led to Stewart punting the writer’s tape recorder away. Again nothing was done to Stewart. His anger continued to grow with each passing week.
After the 2002 Brickyard 400, Stewart again got into a physical altercation. This time Stewart assaulted a photographer, and NASCAR finally took a slight stand. Stewart was docked 50 points, and fined $50,000 for his actions. Although the penalty seemed stiff in contrast to other Stewart infractions mentioned previously, other drivers such as Jimmy Spencer were suspended for similar incidents at race tracks around the same time period.
These are just a few of the numerous examples of how things always seem to have different outcomes as far as judgement when Stewart is involved as opposed to when other drivers are guilty of the same infractions.
For the record, I have for years enjoyed what Stewart has brought to the sport and I think he is one of the most talented drivers the sport has ever seen, but for whatever reason, Stewart has always played by his own set of rules.
With 10 races left in his NASCAR career it doesn’t look like things are going to change, but the scary part is: if he was willing to push the envelope so far in Richmond with nothing on the line for himself, what will Stewart do in a must win scenario in the Chase?
*A section of this story detailing Stewart not being penalized for cursing on television after the 2007 Brickyard 400 has been redacted. Stewart was indeed punished for that infraction.