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Tony Stewart is mortal after all

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By Ngozi Ekeledo

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( David Newton / ESPN.com ) -- Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway was less than 30 minutes from starting when Tony Stewart stopped me on pit road.

He stood within inches of my face, staring me down like a boxer before a prizefight.

"Why do you sometimes write things that make me want to beat the s--- out of you?" the three-time Cup champion said in a way that was pointed, but not threatening.

Stewart was upset with my Thursday column, in which I suggested -- three days after he rolled a sprint car five times at a dirt track in Canada, two weeks removed from his involvement in a multiple-car wreck that sent a 19-year-old driver to the hospital with a fractured back, and less than two months after the death of two drivers -- that he should back away from competing in these high-powered machines to focus on the Chase.

He explained that he takes every precaution, that his sprint cars are 80 pounds heavier than most of the competition's because of the full-containment seat he uses. He insisted that there was just as much risk getting injured or killed driving down the highway as there was in a sprint car, and that what I wrote was bad for short-track racing across the country.

I understood.

I also asked if it was worth the risk if even a broken fingernail impacted his performance in his Sprint Cup car and cost him, Stewart-Haas Racing and his sponsors the millions that go with making the Chase.

He never backed down, saying it was unfair to ask him not to live the way he wanted, to give up what at times he seems more passionate about than NASCAR. He explained how one of the reasons he left Joe Gibbs Racing was because owner Joe Gibbs didn't want him taking these chances that Stewart doesn't consider chances at all.

I respected that.

Now this.

Stewart broke his tibia and fibula in a Monday night sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway. He underwent surgery and will miss Sunday's road course race at Watkins Glen, where his five wins are the most by any driver -- where another win could have solidified his chances to run for a fourth championship.

Now, he could miss the rest of the season.

Now, barring a miracle, Stewart will have to watch the Chase from the sidelines, just as Louisville player Kevin Ware had to at the NCAA Final Four this past spring, after breaking his tibia and fibula in the regional final against Duke.

But at least Ware wasn't taking unnecessary chances. Stewart was, even though he and other drivers will disagree.

Now his company will suffer. His fans will suffer. His sponsors will suffer. The Chase will suffer.

Everyone who follows NASCAR will suffer because the playoffs will be minus a future Hall of Famer.

This isn't to suggest Stewart is selfish for following his love of dirt-track racing. But his love for dirt-track racing shouldn't override common sense.

Stewart is an asset that he as a boss can't replace. There are few better in the world at what he does with a Cup car. A replacement driver can't keep him in championship contention, the way a backup guard could for eventual national champion Louisville, because only the starting driver can collect points.

Stewart is 11th in the standings, in line for the first of two wild cards for the Chase, with one victory, and only five points out of the top 10 who are guaranteed a playoff spot. Martin Truex Jr., in 14th place with a win, holds the second wild-card spot.

But Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, is only 19 points behind him with a victory. If Newman finishes 23rd or better on Sunday, he could move into a wild-card spot, depending on what Greg Biffle, who is in 10th with a victory, and others do.

Reigning champion Brad Keselowski in 12th and 2004 champion Kurt Busch in 13th are only two and six points, respectively, behind Stewart without a victory, so this improves their playoff hopes.


It opens the door for drivers all the way back to Joey Logano in 17th place, 33 back and winless, with the top two drivers between 11th and 20th eligible for wild-card spots, with five races left in the regular season.

The chase for the Chase just got crazier.

And Stewart, only two years removed from his third title, can only sit back and watch.

The news sent shock waves through the NASCAR world, as it should have. Keselowski responded on Twitter with, "Whoa!"

The injury likely will have owners across the sport telling their drivers to curtail their weekday racing. It may have some adding clauses, if they're not already there, to contracts to restrict such activity.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon once loved racing sprint cars. As he said at Pocono, "It was cool and exciting and fun and everything."

But he also said there's a risk involved, one that he's not willing to take and hasn't for a long time.

"If he was a young driver that was coming to work for Hendrick Motorsports, I would try to discourage him from doing that because that's an investment to us as a team," Gordon said of Stewart before this accident. "We ask a lot of our sponsors and our team and everything.

"But he's the team owner, so there's no asking that out of him."

Gordon went on to say you don't want to take that joy from drivers, that you want them to make decisions and choices on their own "and just understand what they're getting themselves into."

Stewart understood. He told us all of the fuss about his wreck in Canada was annoying him.

When told the wreck looked "really nasty to us mortals," he responded, "Oh, my god. You mortals need to watch more sprint car videos and stuff. It was not a big deal.

"I promise you, if there is something to report, I'll let you know. I'll guarantee you there were 15 to 20 guys across the country that flipped just like that and were fine just like we were. If it's bad, we'll let you guys know."

It was bad on Monday night, and Stewart's people let us know.

It is a big deal today.

And Stewart is mortal.

That is why I felt compelled to write the column last week -- why, as I explained to Stewart on pit road, the risk was too high no matter how many precautions you take.

He never backed down, which I respected. I understand Stewart's point. I love his passion and understood it more as I saw the pure joy on his face watching the recent Truck series race at his Eldora Speedway.

But it is that same passion that led to Jason Leffler's death in New Jersey, to Stewart and others attending a midweek funeral in June to say goodbye to a good friend.

Fortunately, I'm just writing about a broken leg today.

Fortunately, one day soon, Stewart will be able to stop me in my steps on pit road to give me an earful about it.

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