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Columns
Third Place
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

1. Racing or Not, Stewart Will Never Forget Ward

Tony Stewart is scheduled to race this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to Michigan International Speedway for the second of two annual stops at the 2-mile track located in the Irish Hills.
 
That he could be back behind the wheel barely a week after Saturday night's tragic incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park may surprise some race fans. It might infuriate others.
 
If he chooses to race, he'll be painted as callous and self-centered by some.
 
If he chooses to race, he'll be welcomed back, quietly and discretely, by others.
 
Regardless of the decision he ultimately makes, none of those assigning blame or offering support will have to endure what Stewart now faces.

That's not to ignore the pain and suffering of the family of Kevin Ward Jr., by any means. The family of the 20-year-old sprint car racer now faces a future without a beloved son and a cherished brother.
 
That will not be altered by whatever Stewart does or does not do in the coming days, weeks or months. A life was lost and there's nothing anyone can do to change that terrible fact.
 
Ward died Saturday night after being struck by Stewart's sprint car, only moments after the two vehicles had made contact. Ward had exited his car and approached Stewart's when he was hit.

The Ontario County (New York) Sheriff's Department is in charge of the investigation. Sheriff Philip C. Povero said Saturday night that the fatality was being investigated "as an on-track crash" and no criminal charges were pending at this time.
 
Whether Stewart, a three-time champion in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series who withdrew from Sunday's event at Watkins Glen, should or should not be competing on the local level isn't for others to decide.
 
Stewart owns the car, pays the crew and is able to choose the races in which he competes. He understands the risks that come with racing the high-powered, winged cars -- a wreck last August left Stewart with a broken leg and ended his NASCAR season with 15 races remaining.
 
For six months he worked to return to competition, never wavering when asked if he would continue to race sprint cars in addition to his Stewart-Haas Racing duties on the Sprint Cup circuit.
 
Now, he'll face those same questions but for a much different reason.
 
For the second time in a year, Stewart's racing career is at a crossroads. Physical limitations were the primary concern following his injury last year.
 
This one goes much, much deeper.
 
Eventually, Stewart will race again, whether Sunday at Michigan or somewhere else in the coming weeks. And there will be those that believe his return means that he's put Saturday night's terrible accident behind him.
 
They will be wrong.
 
Stewart will race again. But he'll never forget what happened Saturday night at Canandaigua.
 
It'll still be there, tomorrow, next week and next year. Always.

2. Winds of Change: Childers’ Eventful Path to NASCAR

Judging by his background, there doesn't seem to be anything unusual about Rodney Childers' career path in NASCAR.

The crew chief for Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team raced go-karts as a youngster, progressed up the ranks through late model stock cars and even had one start in what's now the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

When he moved up to Cup in 2003, it was to work as a crewman instead of a driver. Through the years, he worked for a handful of teams in several different capacities: interior, front-end mechanic, car chief.

His first crew chief role came in 2005 with MB2/MBV Motorsports and driver Scott Riggs. In 2009, he earned his first win atop the pit box, with David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip Racing in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He and Reutimann won again the following year at Chicago, then at New Hampshire while paired with Brian Vickers in 2013.

Childers and Harvick scored their first win together in just their second outing when Harvick captured The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year.

His story is familiar; he was just another former racer who worked on his own equipment and gained a tremendous amount of knowledge while doing so.

But then Childers mentions the hurricane, and you realize his story isn't quite like the others after all.

• • •

"I probably had no business with a chainsaw," Childers said.

It was days after Hurricane Hugo had made its way up the East Coast in 1989. Although downgraded to a tropical storm when it hit Charlotte, Hugo packed plenty of punch as it roared across the region on Sept. 22. Reports say the storm did $1 billion in damage to Charlotte and surrounding areas.

Schools were closed. Trees and power lines were down. Buildings were damaged.

"We were actually stuck at our house for about six days, I think," Childers said. "It was bad."
Clean-up efforts eventuall
y began and Childers, who was 13 at the time, was offered the opportunity to make a little spending money. A friend of the family needed help clearing debris from her yard.

"So my mom took me down there and dropped me off; she was going to run some errands and come back," Childers said. "When she got back I was sitting there waiting because I needed to jack the limb up to get the chainsaw out."

The saw had gotten stuck in a tree limb. Childers knew he could use the jack from the car to lift the limb and free the blade of his saw, and that's just what he did once his mom returned.

But while walking across the yard to return the jack, a limb from one of two huge oak trees in the front yard fell, just as Childers was passing underneath. The limb struck him squarely on top of his head.

"It knocked me out; I wasn't breathing or anything," he said. "My mom started doing CPR on me, got me breathing. I stayed unconscious until the ambulance got there."

Before the emergency workers could depart, Childers took a turn for the worse.

"I started having what they call grand mal seizures," he said. "They actually jerked me back out of the ambulance and put me back on the road right there and tried to get me to breath. My dad said I turned black; he said it wasn't 20 seconds and I was completely black."

Two days later, Childers woke up in a hospital bed. And that, he said, was when he got scared.

"They come in there and tell me everything that's going on and what happened," he said. "They're sitting there explaining seizures to a 13-year-old. I don't know what they're talking about."

Later that day, a doctor showed up and gave Childers two options. He could write Childers a prescription for medication he would have to take the rest of his life and he wouldn't be able to get his driver's license when he turned 16, or he could release him from the hospital, "pray you never have another (seizure), and you can get your license when you're 16 just like everybody else," Childers said. "For somebody that's 13 years old that had been driving since they were seven, getting your license was a big deal."

Childers chose the latter.

• • •

It was after the hurricane, after the accident and shortly after leaving the hospital that Childers first broached the subject of racing to his parents.
Even today, he said, he has no idea why.

"We were driving down the interstate, had just left the hospital when out of the blue … I said 'I want a racing go-kart for Christmas,' "he said. "My mom and dad were like 'Where did you come up with this?'"

Three months later, Rodney Childers got a racing go-kart for Christmas.
Was Childers, who grew up in Mooresville, N.C., destined to work in the sport, growing up in an area already teeming with NASCAR teams and other racing-related industries?

Or did those other outside factors shape his future?

Childers admits he isn't sure.

He only knows one thing – the hurricane was when it all began.

3. Intermediate Package Could Have Biggest Impact in ‘14

The racing on the track has to matter. Amid all the fanfare and announcements, that fact hasn’t changed.

Big, bold moves have brought much attention to NASCAR in recent weeks. Fans will notice the first of those changes when teams take to the track in Daytona Beach during the course of the next two weeks.

A new qualifying format will debut in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series at Daytona International Speedway. Multiple entries will be on the track simultaneously. The fastest will continue to advance. It may not be "racing" to get into the field, but it’s a step in that direction.

Sprint Cup Series teams won’t put the "knockout" process into play until that series moves on to Phoenix. Single-car runs and a pair of qualifying races will continue to be used to determine the starting lineup for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Elsewhere, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has undergone significant changes, with the addition of four teams, increasing the size of the field to 16.

Win a race, we’re told, and you’re "virtually" in.

If there aren’t 16 drivers who've won after the season’s 26th race -- which is likely -- then the remainder of the field will be determined based on points positions. Consistency has been muted, perhaps, but not eradicated.

Eliminations, unspoken truths of the past, are now part of the process. Three individual rounds will cull four teams from the field after every three Chase races until only four drivers remain heading into Homestead for the championship-determining event.

That’s a lot for the average race fan to swallow.

Will they work? Will the moves win over the sport’s older fans and help create new ones? Will attendance grow? Will TV ratings increase?

That’s the hope, the motive behind the moves.

But there’s another item as well, one that’s been overshadowed a bit by the qualifying and Chase announcements. Yet it carries as much, if not more, weight.

The 2014 rules package, aimed at improving competition on intermediate-size tracks, will likely be the determining factor in how the season is perceived. Not qualifying. Not a revamped Chase package.

If the competition on the track isn’t exciting, all the changes in the world aren’t going to placate what some believe has become an increasingly disinterested fan base.

Qualifying formats and Chase transformations won’t satisfy the average fan if there is precious little action between the unfurling of the green and the waving of the checkered flags.

And it’s on the intermediate-sized tracks, which make up the bulk of the 36-race Cup schedule, that the action has waned.

Restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega exist in their own world, one where large packs of cars traveling at ridiculously high speeds dance on the edge of disaster.

Short track racing harkens back to the sport’s earliest days and is less about speed and more about space. You’ve got it. I want it.

Road course races provide the hustle and bustle found on a short track, but showcase a driver’s talent like no other stops on the circuit.

The intermediates are the steak and potatoes of the Cup series and where the sport has to sizzle rather than fizzle.

Officials are hoping the new rules package provides teams with the tools to do just that.

The changes consist of new ride height rules for the front of the car, a splitter change, adjustments to the side skirts and rear bumper areas, a slightly taller spoiler and an increase in the size of the radiator pan underneath the cars.

They’ve been tested on the track and run through the computer. Data has been dissected and discussed. But until 43 cars get on the track and an idea finally becomes reality, the question remains.

Will the racing be better?

At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

4. New Chase has ‘Created Some Serious Drama’

Charlotte Motor Speedway officials budgeted money for post-race fireworks following Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

They shouldn't have bothered. The additional gunpowder wasn't necessary. A few sticks of dynamite had already been lit before the checkered flag waved.

When Kevin Harvick's red and white No. 4 Chevrolet crossed across the finish line, fireworks lit up the night sky. Confetti cannons littered Victory Lane with debris.

Meanwhile, explosions of another sort were going off elsewhere.

Incidents that began on the track spilled over onto pit road and eventually made their way into the garage. Saturday night, side skirts weren't the only things flared. Tempers were, too.

But were the post-race altercations that involved Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth a result of the pressures created by the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format? Or were they just a couple of after-the-fact confrontations that have long been a part of NASCAR?

It could be an indication of just how important every position on the track has come to be viewed under NASCAR's re-tooled championship-determining system.

After all, this isn't the middle of the racing season when teams have months remaining to overcome a single setback. Wreck me in June and I might not retaliate, but I won't forget.

But wreck me in October?

It's the middle of the Chase, and the opportunities to remain relevant are more limited than they've ever been under previous formats. One bad race, regardless of the reason behind it, will put a team on the brink of elimination if not completely out of the picture.

All three drivers are currently still in the class photo. But a new one's scheduled to be taken after this week's race at Talladega Superspeedway. And with four teams whittled from the field after each three-race segment, not everyone will be included.

Any playoff situation, regardless of the sport, increases tension and anxiety. Mistakes are amplified. So are transgressions.

"When you see Matt Kenseth mad enough to fight, you know that this is intense because that's way out of character for him," race winner Kevin Harvick said of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Harvick said he saw the contact between Kenseth and Keselowski on a late-race restart that resulted in Kenseth winding up the wall.

"I think that every moment matters in this Chase, and Matt Kenseth knew that that one particular moment could have been the end of his Chase," he said. "That's the bottom line. That's how intense this whole Chase is."

Kenseth fell from seventh to ninth in the points standings, leaving him among four drivers that will have to race their way back into title contention this weekend.

That probably wasn't on his mind when he went searching for Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion.

The bigger issue, Kenseth said, was contact from the Team Penske driver after he had already begun unhooking his safety equipment and as personnel were coming onto pit road.

"There's no excuse for that," he said. "He's a champion. He's supposed to know better than that."

Keselowski raced his way into contention only to finish 16th, in part he said because of contact from Kenseth just before the final restart. Contact with Hamlin came after the race. Like Kenseth, Keselowski is outside the top eight and forced to play catch-up.

The new Chase format was built to put more emphasis on winning races. Win before the Chase and increase the likelihood you'll be invited to the party. Win during the Chase and you're guaranteed to stick around for the next round.

But the format also leaves practically no time to rebound from setbacks, with just two races (if a team is lucky) to recover from a cut tire, blown engine or crash once the Chase begins.

It has competitors on edge and emotions in overdrive. The road to the championship is paved with antacids.

As runner-up Jeff Gordon noted, the new format "has created some serious drama."

And with just five races remaining, it's not likely to subside anytime soon.

5. Another Year Passes Without Pit Crew Challenge

It’s the week of the Sprint All-Star Race, hosted once again by the folks at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and for those of you keeping count, that’s 27 in a row and 28 of 29.

The race that "could be moved around to other facilities" hasn't, at least not since 1986 in Atlanta.

But that's OK. With the majority of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series teams housed nearby, allowing CMS to continue to host the non-points event works. It works from a scheduling standpoint and it works from a location standpoint.

So what's wrong with the All-Star weekend?

For the second consecutive year, there will be no pit crew competition leading up to Saturday night's main event.

An eight-year run at Time Warner Cable Arena ended in 2012 when Sprint, which has sponsored the event, decided to move its dollars to Daytona in February for what is now known as the Sprint Unlimited.

Perhaps sponsoring the annual pit crew competition as well as the actual All-Star Race was a bit of overkill for the series’ sponsor. That's understandable.

But for the event to go away entirely due to a lack of sponsorship does a great disservice to those who often spend their entire careers toiling away in the background.

The Sprint Pit Crew Challenge certainly wasn't the first program to recognize the efforts of those that go over the wall each week. For more than three decades, a similar program was held at Rockingham (North Carolina) Speedway. That particular program went away when the track's fall event was removed from the race schedule.

Those on the pit crews do their various jobs time after time, knowing their efforts will likely go unnoticed. But that's OK, too. Great pit stop? No problem, now let's get back to the race leader.

Except for those occasions when there is a problem, of course. Then it's "what happened to those guys? Here, let's take a look."

The race winner is interviewed after the race. The crew chief gets interviewed after the race. And in most cases, the team owner is interviewed after the race.

But the members of the winning pit crew? After a few brief photos in the winner's circle, they likely can be found packing up equipment and heading off to the airport, out of sight and out of mind.

It's the nature of the sport, and everyone accepts that.

That's what made the pit crew competition, regardless of where it was held, special. It might have taken place only once a season, but it was a time that the crews could be recognized and applauded for their efforts, often in front of friends and family, while going head-to-head with their fellow crew members.

Sure, they do it every week, but so too do the drivers. This is All-Star week. No points, no pressure. It was competitive, yes, but it was also a lot of fun for those involved.

After Sprint shifted its sponsorship dollars away from the Pit Crew Competition, NASCAR officials said they hoped to secure funding for the program. A year later, they’re still searching.

There were rumors of a new group undertaking the program, and moving it to ZMax Dragway, which is located outside the speedway.

Unfortunately, that project failed to get off the ground.

Throughout the course of a season, there are various opportunities for different groups to be recognized for their efforts, from those that build the engines to those that driver the transporters.

The pit crew competition was the perfect opportunity to recognize a special group of individuals that too often go unnoticed.

The shame of it is that they apparently weren't special enough.

Here's hoping that changes by the time the 2015 All-Star Race rolls around.