There will be plenty of questions surrounding Tony Stewart in the coming weeks. In attempting to answer those questions, NASCAR must be sure not to put the cart ahead of the horse.
After sitting out the last three weeks of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition, Stewart has slipped to 26th in championship points. He is mathematically ineligible to make the 2014 Chase on points, and will need to win one of the remaining two regular-season races at Atlanta Motor Speedway or Richmond International Raceway in order to request an exemption from NASCAR and compete for the title.
From NASCAR’s point of view, timing is everything.
Until (and unless) Stewart can win one of those final two races, the question of an exemption is wholly and completely moot. The worst thing NASCAR can possibly do at this point is to become embroiled in a senseless debate over allowing the three-time series champion to compete for a fourth title, before he is even eligible to do so.
On the topic of a competitive exemption, NASCAR’s response to Stewart should be simple.
“Win first, then we’ll talk.”
Winning in the next two weeks will not be easy, even for a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Stewart. The Indiana native had struggled mightily prior to his three-week hiatus, managing just two Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in 24 starts this season. He has not managed to consistently place himself in a position to win, and asking him to return and prevail immediately – even without the tsunami of distractions that will almost certainly plague his effort in the coming weeks – seems unreasonable in the extreme.
If anyone can do it, Tony Stewart can. But even Stewart is unlikely to overcome such insurmountable odds.
In truth, championships probably don’t matter to Stewart right now. A healthy grieving process and a positive mental outlook should supersede all thoughts of points, wins and championships. Stewart is a racer, however, with responsibilities to sponsors, teammates, employees and fans. He will race this weekend with those responsibilities in mind, and because his best therapy will almost certainly come behind the wheel of that No. 14 Chevrolet.
For now, that’s enough. Let Tony come back and race. And if he somehow manages to rise above the cacophony, ignore the pressure and win, then we’ll discuss the possibility of a waiver.