Avondale, Ariz. — Tony Stewart disagrees with the way NASCAR mandated head and neck restraints for the drivers, saying the sanctioning body probably was forced into making some kind of move.
"I feel like NASCAR made a mistake," said the outspoken and sometimes rash driver, who had been silent on the issue. "I think it's because of the pressure the media put on NASCAR.
"I feel like sometimes you've got to give NASCAR a break and let technology take its course instead of trying to make a great story about what controversy we can have this week."
Stewart, who will start 22nd in the 43-car field today in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, was the last holdout among the drivers in using either the HANS or Hutchens device, the two approved head and neck restraint systems.
Requiring use of the head and neck restraints is the latest safety move by the sanctioning body in the wake of four drivers deaths including that of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt from head or neck injuries in the past 17 months.
The devices are intended to keep the drivers' heads from whipping forward in a collision.
NASCAR handed down its edict on Oct. 17 that one or the other must be used any time the drivers are in the cars. Stewart reacted angrily last weekend in Talladega, Ala., where he had words with NASCAR officials before racing to a second-place finish in the EA Sports 500. Stewart has contended he has a problem with claustrophobia that makes using the devices almost impossible. He has also said he still is not convinced of their effectiveness.
Since the mandate was announced, Stewart had steadfastly refused to talk for the record. He was calm and spoke with apparent ease Saturday morning as he sat next to team owner Joe Gibbs.
"I'm unhappy with NASCAR," Stewart said. "I've been unhappy for over a year now. It's frustrating to me as a race driver. Their responses are not the things I want to see from a professional organization."
Stewart insisted he is "a firm believer in head and neck restraints," but doesn't like having only the two options.
"I'll say the same thing I said before," Stewart began. "I don't feel like either one of the two devices is right for me right now. What we've had to do to get me comfortable in the car is basically make the Hutchens device not do its job.
"We've made the straps so long that no matter where I move my head I don't get the tension of the straps."
He admitted that the device, set up the way he is using it, could not do its intended job if he got in a wreck.
NASCAR had no immediate comment.
Gibbs, who also fields cars for defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, said Stewart's objections have some validity.
"It restricts him some and makes him real uncomfortable," Gibbs said. "We've had a number of deaths in the sport, and NASCAR made a decision here that we need to wear head and neck restraints. I think that's good. I'm glad our guys have them on.
"Now let's flip over to the personal side of it. He has gotten out of the car about three times because he's claustrophobic.
"He didn't want to get out of the car. It's a personal thing and we just have to work through it with him."
Stewart thinks someone will eventually come up with a device he is comfortable with.
"I'm sure there's going to be hundreds of manufacturers come out with different devices in the future, and I'm going to look at every one of them until I find one that I like. But, right now, it's put me in an awkward position in the race car."
Meanwhile, there's another race to run, with Jeff Gordon, starting 14th, holding a 395-point lead over runner-up Ricky Rudd, starting 21st.
Rudd not only needs to make up some ground on Gordon to keep the championship battle going. He is under attack from Stewart and Sterling Marlin, who trail the second-place driver by 74 and 77 points.
"I'm a race car driver," Stewart said. "All I want to do is go out there and see what I can do about making that car go faster and see about having the best season result I've ever had."