Analysis: Should NASCAR allow Tony Stewart to be Chase-eligible?

NASCAR president Mike Helton (left) said Friday that Tony Stewart (right) is eligible for the Chase.

Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images

Under Brian France’s watch, NASCAR has made a number of progressive changes, almost all for the better.

NASCAR has twice changed its Sprint Cup Series cars since 2007. It created the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004 and then overhauled it twice, expanding the field from 10 to 12 to this year 16 drivers. A couple of years ago, NASCAR instituted double-file restarts ensuring fierce and exciting competition whenever the green flag drops. The points system was redone to make it simpler for fans to understand.

France has pushed hard on the NASCAR Green initiative and NASCAR’s diversity program, both of which are starting to pay real dividends. In fact, NASCAR’s HQ building in Daytona Beach, Fla., has won national awards for being so environmental friendly.

NASCAR also has invested millions of dollars in its media and fan engagement center in Charlotte to make sure it constantly has its pulse on what people are thinking of racing.

Great stuff, all of it.

In the midst of all this progressivism, when a true crisis comes up, NASCAR has something to fall back from the days when Brian’s grandfather, William Henry Getty France, ruled the sanctioning body with an iron hand, and once or twice, a loaded pistol.

I am talking about a phrase in the NASCAR rulebook known as "EIRI," which stands for, "except in rare instances." Essentially, it means, "the rules mean what they say they do until we decide they don’t." EIRI is an all-encompassing loophole big enough to drive a truck through. If you’re a NASCAR driver or crew chief of mechanic, you know damn sure what EIRI means. If you’re a civilian or casual observer of the sport, chances are you’ve never heard of it and/or it makes no sense. But it is what it is.

NASCAR president Mike Helton invoked EIRI Friday to give Tony Stewart a waiver on the requirement that all drivers attempt to start all 26 races in the Cup regular season to be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Stewart, of course, has missed the last three races after a sprint car incident Aug. 9 in Upstate New York that killed fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr., 20.

NASCAR president Mike Helton: Tony Stewart eligible for the Chase

That accident has been under investigation for nearly three weeks by the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department, which announced Friday that the probe likely will last at least two more weeks. It’s possible that Stewart will face criminal charges when that investigation is complete. Even if he is completely exonerated — and a lot of people believe he will be — Stewart could face civil litigation that drags on for years.

Yet, if Stewart wins Sunday night in Atlanta or six nights later in Richmond, he’ll be in the Chase thanks to EIRI.

"Along with that importance of routine participation also came the asterisk, so to speak, about ‘except in rare instances,’" said Helton during his Friday presser at the Atlanta track. "This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport. As the league, it’s our responsibility to try to make decisions that are correct and right. Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can. After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."

If you’re a dedicated NASCAR follower — especially if you’re a Stewart fan — you probably have no problem with that.

If you’re a casual fan or just a sports fan in general, you might be scratching your head, wondering what in the bloody heck NASCAR is thinking, especially with the accident investigation not completed.

Tony Stewart speaks for first time since tragic sprint car incident

I’m not going to put words in NASCAR’s mouth, but I will say this much: Over a NASCAR career that dates back more than 15 years, Stewart has won three Sprint Cup championships and been a tireless advocate of the sport. He’s somebody who the NASCAR brass likes and respects a lot, in spite of his occasional outburst of temper and boorishness — or maybe because of it.

Stewart has helped build the sport and he’s one of the few drivers who truly moves the needle with fans. Over the length of his hall-of-fame career, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt and NASCAR has given it to him.

Part of me wants to say it was the wrong decision to grant Stewart a Chase waiver, that all parties should wait for the police investigation to be completed first. 

But in the 17 years I’ve been covering this sport, most of the time NASCAR’s decisions turn out to be the right ones in the long run, even if at first they don’t seem to be correct to me.

Except, of course, in rare instances.