NASCAR: Tony Stewart Should Be Open To Reconsidering ’16 Plans

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Tony Stewart has been through a lot in his NASCAR career over the last few seasons and 2016 is not shaping up to be any better. With that in mind maybe Stewart should reconsider his 2016 plans.

2016 was supposed to be a return to greatness for Tony Stewart in his last season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. 2016 was supposed to be the final chapter in the career of a three-time NASCAR champion. 2016 can still be all of these things for Stewart but one has to wonder if maybe it would be in his best interest to reconsider in 2016 plans.

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Since winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2011, not much has gone right for Stewart. 2012 saw him win three races and finish 9th in the standings, not too shabby. 2013 also saw him win a race but the 2013 season was cut short when he broke his leg and missed the last 15 races of the season. Stewart returned in 2014 and had six top-10 finishes in the first 21 races before the Kevin Ward Jr. accident took place. Stewart was already having a sub-par season after returning from the leg injury and the accident (which caused him to miss three races) only further derailed his season. Last season Stewart ran his first full season since 2012 but also had the worst season of his NASCAR career.

Stewart finished 2015 28th in the point standings, his worst finishing position ever in a season that he ran all 36 races. Prior to 2015, Stewart’s worst point’s finish in a full season was in 2006 when he finished 11th. Over the last three seasons, Stewart has finished 28th, 25th and 29th in the final standings.

Since the broken leg, Stewart has simply not been the same driver. It’s also fair to say that the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy has to do with this as well. Since the leg injury Stewart has run in 69 NASCAR races. During that 69-race span, Stewart has zero wins, three top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes. In the previous 69 races (before the broken leg) Stewart won eight times, had 24 top-five finishes and 34 top-10 finishes. Some will say that age could also be a factor but regardless, the numbers don’t lie about what Stewart has done since the leg injury in 2013.

That brings us to the 2016 season.

Coming into 2016 many NASCAR fans were already wondering if Stewart would be able to put together the kind of last season that Jeff Gordon was able to put together in 2015. In 2015 Gordon won a race and made it to the final-four in the Chase before leaving NASCAR. The injury now adds another layer to the 2016 season for Stewart. In 2015 the NASCAR world watched Kyle Busch miss 11 races, return to NASCAR, win races and win a championship.

Late last week a report came out alluding to the fact that Stewart is looking to return to the track around the same time that Busch returned from his injury in 2015. This of course made the Busch and Stewart comparisons even greater. Not only are folks looking for Stewart to do what Gordon did in his final season, they are also looking for him to bounce back from injury the way that Busch did in his championship-winning run last year. This is all on top of the fact that Stewart has not run well for a consistent amount of time in more than two seasons.

Expectations and fear of failure should not be reasons (or at least the main reason) for Stewart not racing in 2016. However, his health and the welfare of his team should be. Back injuries are not something that should be taken lightly and with 2016 slated to be Stewart’s last season in NASCAR, it’s not a stretch to think he would try to rush himself back from the injury. Stewart racing in 2016 with potential lingering back issues is not what he or his team needs. In a perfect world Stewart would return after missing 11 or 12 races, find his way into the Chase and maybe win a race or two along the way.

However, NASCAR fans know that this isn’t a perfect world.

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Then you have to wonder what happens if his fill-in driver finds success in the first 11 or 12 races (assuming that’s how many races Stewart misses). Would it be in the best interest of the No. 14 team to pull a driver that has won or is running well almost halfway to the Chase in favor of putting Stewart back into the car? Yes, is what Stewart fans are saying but this question isn’t about loving Stewart, it’s about what is best for SHR if this situation were to unfold.

I’m not advocating that Stewart call it quits right now, heck I’m not even saying that he should retire in three months. However, I am saying that in his heart of hearts he should be open to reconsidering his plan of action when it comes to this season. Stewart’s decision to get back into the No. 14 machine this season should be based on how his back feels, how his replacement driver is doing and when he is cleared to get back behind the wheel. Stewart fans should also realize that there is a possibility that he could miss more time this season than the expected 11 or 12 races. What happens if Stewart missed 20 races in 2016? Would you then want to see him return (most likely with a Chase waiver) and try to win one of the last six races before the Chase, thus making his final season consist of only 16 events?

There comes a point in time where Stewart being on the track could potentially not be the best thing for anyone involved. Currently we are not at that point and we might never reach that point. That being said, I hope if that point does come to be, Stewart and all involved will be prepared to reconsider things and move forward accordingly.