August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

For embattled Tony Stewart, dirt-track racing is part of his core

Tony Stewart competes in dirt-track racing, in part, because racing is his 'life,' ESPN analyst Ricky Craven says. (John Raoux / Associated Press)

Tony Stewart never really has been much like his racing peers.

He never adopted the approach many have, hitting the gym, getting physically fit enough to compete in triathlons and eating healthy. And while many of his fellow racers have a polished public persona, Stewart can be equally charming and equally brash and surly, particularly when dealing with the media.

Stewart, simply, is unique.

The 43-year-old Hoosier and three-time Sprint Cup series champion always has been a throwback racer with his old-school toughness and swagger and his need to fill any and all free time with racing.

“It’s something I’m passionate about, short-track racing, especially dirt-track racing,” Stewart told reporters last year in Arizona. “So any chance I can to get away …”

He decided to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to take over his own NASCAR Sprint Cup team in 2009 partly because he wanted the freedom to race whenever and wherever he wanted, something he wasn’t given the room to do at JGR. Stewart now owns the multi-million dollar Stewart-Haas Racing team, he owns short tracks, like famed Eldora Speedway in Ohio, and in his spare time he participates in grass-roots racing, dirt tracks and sprint cars, hoping, in part through his participation, to continue growing the sport.

Now, though, he is involved in controversy and an on-going investigation following the death of 20-year-old racer Kevin Ward Jr., during a race last Saturday night at Canandaigua (New York) Motorsports Park, about an hour from Watkins Glen where the Sprint Cup series competed Sunday.

Ward climbed from his car after he and Stewart had an on-track incident that pushed Ward into the wall, and during a caution walked to the middle of the track, gesturing toward Stewart. Stewart’s car struck and killed Ward. Investigators have said they have not found evidence of criminal intent.

Stewart withdrew from the Watkins Glen race, and it remains unclear whether he will participate in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

Race analysts and national pundits have weighed in this week on Stewart, his role in the accident and whether it’s wise for drivers at the highest level of their professional series to dabble in short-track racing.

Ricky Craven, an ESPN racing analyst, said on the network this week Stewart’s intensity when it comes to racing is “off the charts.” And while many Sprint Cup series drivers participate here and there in short-track racing, no one takes it to the same level as Stewart.

Craven said to figure out why Stewart craves racing on such a constant basis, you must understand his personality.

“You have to understand Tony Stewart, and that’s not an easy chore,” Craven said on ESPN. “Where most drivers on an off-day would spend the day with their wife or children, Tony Stewart doesn’t have a wife, Tony Stewart doesn’t have children.

“His life is racing, and it’s part of his DNA. You really need to understand, Tony lives to race. That might not make sense to a lot of people, but he lives to race anything and everything wherever he can.”

Last year, Stewart sacrificed the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season after he broke his right leg in a sprint car event at Southern Iowa Speedway. He was leading the main event when he hit a lapped car and flipped. A week earlier, he had flipped several times while racing at a dirt track in Ontario, Canada, but was uninjured and raced the next night.

He required three surgeries following that accident in Iowa before returning to the Cup series the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. A few months later he made clear he planned to participate in sprint-car racing, which endured multiple fatalities last year, including Jason Leffler, a versatile racer who had competed in NASCAR’s three top national series.

Race-team ownership gave Stewart the freedom to call his own shots and indulge his short-track racing — he had planned to run about 50 races in addition to his NASCAR schedule last year — but after he suffered the broken leg, sponsorship executives had to be scratching their heads. After all, they annually make enormous, multi-million dollar investments.

Even Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, said last year after the accident in which Stewart suffered the broken leg, that it might be time to explore if the extracurricular racing should be curbed.

“I think sprint-car racing makes him better at what he does here, but it obviously leaves the door open for the situation we are in now,” Zipadelli told reporters last year after Stewart’s broken leg left him unable to compete.

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

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