NASCAR changes rules on the fly to fit their needs

NASCAR officials never like to get too specific about their rules, lest they back themselves into a corner about decisions like the one they made Friday. Thanks to a NASCAR wavier, Tony Stewart will now be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup despite missing three races.

Should he win one of the next two events – at Atlanta Motor Speedway or Richmond International Raceway – Stewart would qualify for the 16-driver playoff.

Though the rule was vague enough for NASCAR to use it in this instance, it was presented as a medical exception when the rule was announced in January.

In short: Drivers must at least attempt to qualify for each of the 26 regular-season races to remain eligible. If not, they would need a doctor's note for a "pretty severe" condition, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said at the time.

A concussion might be one such condition. Having the flu or missing a race to attend the birth of a child would likely not be covered by a waiver – though O'Donnell was careful not to "get into what-ifs" when asked the specific criteria for the exception in January.

There's no question "pretty severe" describes Stewart's grief over the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy; that was obvious during a Friday news conference. But granting Stewart a waiver for missing three races doesn't seem to be in the spirit of NASCAR's rule.

As Stewart-Haas Racing has made clear, it was Stewart's choice to miss the races. Stewart said Friday it was both out of respect for the Ward family and to deal with his own grief.

When asked about the Chase at Michigan International Speedway – the second race Stewart missed – SHR executive vice president Brett Frood scoffed at the question.

"The Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now," he said.

Two weeks later, SHR applied for the waiver and NASCAR granted it.

Certainly, Ward's death makes for a sensitive situation. Stewart was clearly hurting as he struggled through a brief statement Friday regarding the last few weeks and appeared to be on the verge of tears at times.

But though NASCAR certainly loves Stewart and all he's done for the sport as a three-time champion and car owner, officials didn't need to grant the waiver.

Before this year, waivers wouldn't have helped someone in Stewart's position. That's because the Chase field was set on points and an absence would all but ruin a driver's playoff chances.

As such, drivers did things like hide a concussion (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and race with a broken ankle (Brad Keselowski) in order to continue tallying points toward qualifying for the 10-race run to the title.

The medical waiver concept is a good one because it might give a driver in a situation like that a chance to recover for a week before getting back into the car.

But three weeks is a long time – 11.5% of the regular season – to sit out and still be considered eligible for the championship.

Of course, this could be considered a moot point if Stewart doesn't win one of the next two races. But just making him eligible puts the decision in the same breath as making Jeff Gordon the 13th Chase driver last year when the rules said there could only be 12.

In that sense, NASCAR's decision was the nice thing to do. But that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do. USA Today

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