First off, I need to congratulate Kasey Kahne, crew chief Kenny Francis and the No. 5 team for an absolutely awesome finish last Sunday at Pocono. I love Jeff Gordon to death. He’s our sport's third most winningest driver and a four-time champion, but Kasey simply put a whuppin’ on Jeff on that last restart. He made the pass and won the race.
It was his second win of the season. It moved Kasey up to eighth in the points, but even more important to all that, it all but locked him into the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. There are still five races to go and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see them win yet again before the Chase starts, so a big congratulations to Kasey and the No. 5 team.
Now onto the bad news that came the very next evening when Tony Stewart broke his right leg while racing at Southern Iowa Speedway Monday night. Stewart-Haas Racing has chosen Max Papis to drive for Tony this weekend at Watkins Glen. There is no word yet on how long Tony will be out. He had a second surgery on Thursday for his right tibia and fibula.
I can honestly say I know what Tony is going through both physically and mentally. I was in a wreck in Daytona in 1990 with only five minutes left in final practice that shattered my left femur. I was out of the race car for something like three months. Even back then, with 1990 medical technology, doctors were telling me it was going to be six months to a year before I was going to be able to get back in the car.
Professional athletes simply aren’t mortal humans. You have a goal that is a burning desire in your soul. It’s to get back on that field and catch a touchdown pass. It’s to walk to the plate and knock the ball out of the park. In Tony’s case, it’s to get back behind that wheel and make the Chase. Yes, I am telling you right here, right now – do not count Anthony Wayne Stewart out of this Chase picture yet.
You are motivated to go through the rigors and, yes, the extreme pain of rehab. I didn’t want to but I knew if I wanted to reach my goal, then I had to suck it up and just do it. You push yourself hard. Honestly, in most cases when it comes to a professional athlete, take the time the doctor says it will take to be ready to go again and then cut that time in half because of the motivation of the athlete.
Tony’s passion is racing. If there’s an open day on his calendar, you won’t find him playing 18 holes of golf, you will find him somewhere in the United States thrilling crowds in some sprint car at some track. That’s where Tony came from. That’s where he got his start. There’s just something about taming one of those monsters on a dimly lit dirt track that motivates Tony.
That’s the amazing thing about Tony and why you hear everyone say he is a throw-back to the days of A.J. Foyt. Tony will race anything, anywhere, and the scary part about it all – he will win in it. He simply has that Midas Touch and you see it time and time again.
Look what happened when he faced down all the critics, left his championship winning team at Joe Gibbs Racing and became a partner with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing. If I remember correctly, Haas CNC Racing on its own up to that point had only something like one top-10 finish in all the races they competed in.
Don’t think this was some rag-tag operation, either. Those teams wanted for nothing. They had all kind of assets at their fingertips, including support, cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. What Tony did was come in there and give the place the kind of leadership and direction it needed.
The 2011 season not only saw Stewart-Haas Racing win its first championship but they made history doing it. Tony hadn’t won a race all season. He barely makes the Chase. He personally tells the media that they don’t belong there and that they are taking up a space someone more deserving should have gotten.
What happened next was literally the stuff of legends. Tony wins five out of the 10 Chase races. He literally ties Carl Edwards in the final season points and because of his five wins, Tony won the tie-breaker and the championship. If that isn’t hard enough to believe, add in the fact that it came out later that Tony had already informed his crew chief before the Chase was over that he wasn’t going to be with the No. 14 car in 2012, and yet they all achieved stock car's ultimate goal – 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Tony was the first owner-driver to win a championship since the late Alan Kulwicki did it back in 1992. Tony did what I couldn’t do. Tony did what Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Geoff Bodine, Bill Elliott and so many others of us that were owner/drivers couldn't do. He won a championship. That’s just a tribute to the type of businessman and driver Tony is.
Tony will be the first person to tell you that he had a lot of help doing all this. He will also be the first one to tell you that the secret to his success in business is that he hires people smarter than he is and doesn’t micro-manage them. He lets them do their job to the best of their capabilities.
Tony does it his way whether it’s on the track or whether it’s owning a track like he does at Eldora. The thing I love about Tony is that he will get up in your face on Sunday after a race if he thinks you did him wrong on a restart, yet he’s the first guy on Monday that will buy you a steak dinner and a beer to wash it down with.
There’s a side to Tony that really reminds me of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Oh sure, Dale was the Intimidator. Dale was one tough customer. Dale lived the creed, “You hit me once, I’ll hit you twice.” That was his persona that he created and cultivated on the racetrack.
Off the track Dale had a very soft side and helped a lot of folks along the way. Tony Stewart is identical to that. He’ll do anything for anybody at any time if he can. There’s a lot of things that Tony does for charity that the general public never hears about, and you know what, Tony is just fine with that. Dale was like that, too.
Some critics like to say “Tony Stewart is this” and “Tony Stewart is that” – but let me tell you what Tony Stewart really is – he’s one fine guy. He’s a three-time champion of our sport and one hell of an ambassador for our sport. He’s a gentleman. He’s passionate about what he does.
As I mentioned earlier, he’s the second coming of A.J. Foyt. Tony is the only person I have ever seen that is like A.J. and can not only drive but win in anything he sits in. Those two could build ‘em, wreck ‘em, fix ’em and go back and race them again. It’s God-given and sorta like Haley’s Comet; you only see it in your lifetime but once.
The reality is, my friend Tony has a broken leg. He doesn’t have a broken career. Back in 1990 after what happened to me, doctors speculated that my career might be over. I lost a sponsorship deal because they said they didn’t want a driver with a broken leg.
Tony Stewart doesn’t have any of that to worry about. Will he rethink his schedule and cut it back some? Who knows, but that’s not for any of us to decide. That’s for Tony Stewart to decide. Tony is not one to compromise, and I hope he doesn’t have to. Trust me, Tony is not a happy man when he has to compromise.
Here’s what I can tell you about ol’Smoke. I love him to death. I am fortunate to call him a dear friend. I love his passion. I love his desire. I love the fire that burns in his soul when it comes to racing. I love his attitude. You always know where you stand with Tony. He doesn’t mind speaking his mind to another driver or to the media. Gosh, he sorta reminds me of another driver from back in the day.
If you think Tony is down and if you think Tony is out – friend, you are sadly mistaken. Trust me, you’ll be stunned with what Tony still does in the 2013 season. The bottom line is actually pretty simple folks. Sure, he might have a broken right leg, but he’ll still kick your ass with his left.