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CRANDALL: Stewart Deserved a Better Sendoff

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More or less, Tony Stewart’s full-time NASCAR career has ended in a hospital bed, and that’s a damn shame.

Just two weeks before what was supposed to be his final Daytona 500 and 18th and final NASCAR season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Stewart has a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, which required surgery.

It’s an ugly end to what has been a rough few years for the 44-year-old, both personally and professionally. Granted, some might say Stewart did it to himself with the situations he put himself in, but it’s hard to argue he deserved a better sendoff.

He deserved more than an apparent accident in California to delay what was supposed to be a 36-race going away party — regardless of whether he wanted it or not.

Stewart is expected to make a full recovery and return to his No. 14 Chevrolet, but it won’t be the same. And now the narrative of his final year will be marred by the January 31 accident instead of being a full year of watching Stewart one last time and giving him a fond farewell.

He deserved that much because Tony Stewart is leaving behind a legacy.

When Stewart kicked open the NASCAR door in 1999, there was no doubt Stewart would be a force to be reckoned with. Many probably didn’t realize just how big a force that would be. From the very beginning, he appeared to be out to prove something and that attitude consistently brought him in Victory Lane and to his first of three championships in 2002.

Now 590 races, 48 wins, 15 poles, 12, 783 laps led, 300 top-10 finishes and three titles later, Stewart should have certainly have been given his due. He should have been able to bask in the thank yous, pats on the back, even gifts and tributes.

While his accomplishments weren’t always pretty because of the side of sassy Stewart threw out there, somehow many ended up embracing it. Jabbing at a reporter, throwing a helmet, providing a smirk and snarky answer was “Tony being Tony.” It developed an aura around him because he made you want to know what he would say or do next.

In a way, Stewart is the quintessential blue-collar American who works hard, plays hard, and the politics of it all don’t matter. That made him relatable while drawing in the fans that hold the same attitude about life.

Simply put, he is the badass many of us want to be.

But life for Stewart means living it to the fullest, which doesn’t include sitting at home where it’s safe. It makes him just like Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards or any driver injured away from the track. Live life to actually live it. Unfortunately, three of those times in the last four years have drastically changed Stewart’s life.

But when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series there’s no denying that Stewart, like Gordon before him and the many to come after him, leaves a void. On the racetrack his talent makes him enjoyable to watch. He’s something special – often lauded as one of the few racecar drivers in the world who can drive anything he sits in, Stewart has a resume many can only envy.

Away from the track, often his charity work goes unnoticed because Stewart doesn’t do it for the recognition or with photographers in tow. He’s the man spending his time riding tractors at the Chili Bowl and in Eldora not because he has to, but because he wants to give back to his profession. Make sure there is a place for other racers to come from while ensuring race fans can always have a place to get their fix.

What makes this even worse is that Stewart appeared ready to go out guns blazing this season. A new crew chief was put in place during the offseason, a lower downforce package will be used in the series, and Stewart has spent time getting in shape. Not just because he needed to feel better, but to make it clear 2016 wasn’t a throwaway year.

This year, he said, was all about having fun while being as successful as possible.

Which maybe makes it a bit ironic that this is how it ends for him. Stewart having fun before heading to Speedweeks, only to have fate intervene. He was doing what he wanted, though, as always.

But it’s still a shame.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

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