If your favorite driver has ever been forced to miss a race, whether by injury or personal anguish or as a forced vacation from NASCAR, you know how difficult it can be to tune into that event. Without your driver in the field, it's hard for a race to really feel like a race. The event is marred by this gaping hole three times the size of the race track, a void that can only be filled by your driver, your true number one favorite. Sure, most of us have second-favorites, third-favorites, and so on, and we like to root them on in the event that some malady fells our number one's bid for victory. Being forced into cheering for them by default, however, is quite different and much more difficult.
This is a subject I have found myself the most reluctant of experts on over the past 12 months, with Tony Stewart's absences from 16 total races thus far. As I have mentioned before in the last couple of weeks, I am an unabashed, die-hard Stewart fan. Oh sure, I do have other drivers I pull for - Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, most notably - and I generally like and respect our entire roster of competitors (which is why I have no qualms about saying who I root for, because there really isn't anyone I dislike), but I am first and always a Smoke fan. For me, a Sprint Cup race without Tony Stewart in the field is like a Batman film with the Caped Crusader nowhere in sight.
Yet, I've tuned in to every one of those races that have seen someone else at the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet, and I've watched every single televised lap (green-flag pit stops aside, if you catch my drift). I've done that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I'm sure it is not only what Tony wants but also what he straight-up expects of his fans while he is on the sidelines. Another reason is that I can still show my support Harvick and Hamlin and whoever might be filling the role of seat warmer in the 14 machine and root them on.
Finally, I watch because, frankly, what else am I going to do? Nearly every Cup race day of my 27 years on this earth, I've spent in front of a television. It's all I know, and it's what I love. Call it, "watching for the love of the race."
And as tough as these last two weekends have been for all of Tony's fans, his buddies in the Cup Series have certainly made sure that those of us who tuned in for the Watkins Glen and Michigan events were highly entertained.
The duel between AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose for glory at The Glen and a shot to race for this year's championship is one of the best I've ever seen. It was just a good, hard, clean stock car race. I say clean because, while they rubbed a few times and left a few donuts on the side of each other's car during those frantic final laps, neither one of them raced dirty. If either AJ or Marcos had wanted to, they certainly had every opportunity to loop the other around and then just try to hold of Kurt Busch and the rest of the pack. There might have been some fallout, but for the most part such a maneuver would have been accepted as a product of the short-track style of racing that seems to prevail in the late goings at The Glen and Sonoma.
Neither of them did, however. They just raced hard, giving one another all they had until the last turn of the penultimate lap when Ambrose jumped sideways and gave Allmendinger all the gap he needed for his first win. It was a thing of beauty, and I'm so glad I tuned in to see it live.
Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 was a great race from start to finish. The race-long battle between Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano was excellent and kept me entertained all day. Joey would jump out ahead, Jeff would run him down and take the lead, then Joey would get the lead back on a cycle of pit stops and the process would repeat. Kevin Harvick slipped his nose into the picture a few times, as did Busch and Paul Menard towards the end. The racing was incredible, save for Kurt's accident that brought out the last yellow. It was a shame to see him crash, because he had fought hard all day and finally found himself in a position to maybe upset the Gordon/Logano duel. That caution played right into Gordon's hands, and boy was he vintage Gordon on that final restart. Logano, who continues to blossom into the kind of talent that all the hype said he'd be, put up one heck of a fight to try to get the lead back.
Old age and treachery trumped youthful exuberance, though, and while Joey was fighting to save a loose race car, Jeff sailed on towards his 91st win. Again, it was vintage Gordon, the kind of Gordon who dominated the late 1990s. He flat-out took that win in perhaps one of his best pieces of driving ever. You could see just how disappointed Logano was to come up short in his post-race interview, but the kid had nothing to be ashamed of. He put on quite the show and gave it all he had, and in the end he got beaten by one of the all-time best at his finest.
The excitement of Watkins Glen and Michigan provided a nice, albeit temporary healing for my anguish over the situation Tony finds himself in, and I hope my fellow Stewart fans were able to find a similar kind of solace. They also reminded me of just how much I really love stock car racing. Even without my favorite driver in the field, I was on the edge of my seat and had a ball watching the races unfold. I had begun to wonder how much love for the sport itself I still had in me, whether or not I would still tune in with great anticipation once Tony decides to hang up his helmet as a driver in about 30 years or so.
The answer is a resounding, unequivocal yes.
Don't get me wrong, my enthusiasm is certainly muted because of everything Tony is dealing with, along with the grief of the Ward family and the loss our sport is still reeling from. I said this last week and I will repeat: no fanbase is more passionate or cares more about its driver than Tony's. There's no such thing as a casual Tony Stewart fan; we are all die-hards and the man feels almost like a family member. When you hear accounts of just how badly someone you care about is hurting, while not at all surprising to those of us who understand him and his love for people and especially his fellow racers, it is nothing short heart-wrenching. Until we know Tony is going to be okay, I don't think any of his fans are going to feel all that great.
Still, like I said before, the races at The Glen and Michigan were at least some respite from our own grief. Whether or not Tony feels he is up to racing this Saturday night in Bristol, Thunder Valley promises to provide us with more excitement and relief. Atlanta and Richmond should be thrilling races as well, and regardless of how one feels about the new Chase format (a story for another day, IE: tomorrow) there will be no shortage of thrills and spills come fall either. Our sport is strong, the economy still continues to try to kick it in the gut at every turn, but we're still making it. And once Smoke is ready to rejoin the fray, we'll be that much stronger.
Oh yes, the love for the race still burns brightly as ever.