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Only Tony Stewart kept Tony Stewart from enjoying final NASCAR season

Tony Stewart’s retirement tour begins not with a chance to win the Daytona 500, but a fractured back that has him sidelined indefinitely.

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

The final season was supposed to be a celebration. An appreciative way to say farewell to a legend, who helped revolutionize NASCAR to the unquestioned preeminent form of motor sport in North America and second only to Formula One worldwide.

No, Tony Stewart didn't want the 2016 Sprint Cup season to turn into one prolonged retirement party. Having to endure the pomp-and-circumstance that Jeff Gordon went through on nearly a weekly basis last season just doesn't mesh with Stewart's personality.

Despite his wishes, though, Stewart was most certainly going to be subjected to some form of commemorative tribute along the way. Maybe not Kentucky bourbon, a track named after him or a pair of Shetland ponies, all of which Gordon received, but there would events held in Stewart's honor.

If he had his druthers, Stewart wanted his last season as a full-time NASCAR driver to be about having fun. A characteristic too frequently absent in recent years, as he dealt with serious injury, tragedy and a noticeable performance decline.

One specific goal was to win the Daytona 500, NASCAR's marquee event that has become Stewart's personal white whale. He had come close in 17 attempts, but just as the "Great American Race" had once vexed Dale Earnhardt, Stewart couldn't reach Victory Lane despite winning every other race Daytona International Speedway hosted.

Whether Stewart, currently immersed in a career-long winless streak spanning 77 races, was still capable of challenging for victories was open to debate.

"If it's a terrible year, I'm not going to sit there and go, ‘Wow, that defined my career,' because the stats will show what we did over 18 years," Stewart said Jan. 21 during NASCAR's preseason media tour. "I think no matter how the season goes, I'm going to be able to say I had a successful run in the Sprint Cup Series."

But whatever opportunities to have fun that existed previously have diminished greatly with the with the news Stewart will be sidelined an indefinite amount of time after suffering a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra while driving a dune buggy last Sunday.

Stewart will not be driving the No. 14 car at Daytona nor anytime soon thereafter. The injury is serious enough that his return will likely be measured in months, not weeks. A once joyous season-long celebration has suddenly turned into a somber affair.

And the dramatic shift in tones is somewhat appropriate considering all that Stewart has experienced in recent years where his activities away from NASCAR have outshone anything he's done on a stock car track.

Since August 2013, there have been two high-profile incidents involving Stewart behind the wheel of a sprint car. The first saw him break his right leg in two places, causing him to miss the final 15 races of the NASCAR schedule. The second came the following year when he struck and killed a driver during a dirt race in Upstate New York.

The latest calamity didn't have Stewart driving a high-powered sprint car on some dusty track, but a high-powered dune buggy through the California/Arizona desert. And although drivers are permitted extracurricular activities, high-risk behavior carries potential devastating consequences of which Stewart is quite familiar with, as for the third time in four years he will miss NASCAR races due to an avoidable situation.

"The dunes are unpredictable and you can land harder on some spots than others," Greg Biffle said on SiriusXM Radio on Wednesday night.  "I tell you what, I've knocked the wind out of myself; I've thought I'd broke my tailbone or back before. I don't know exactly Tony's situation or exactly what happened, but it can be done."

Biffle took part in Stewart's dune-buggying excursion, and contends drivers cannot "live in a bubble" and "things happen." And he's right: accidents sometimes do occur no matter what measures are taken to protect oneself.

No one is going to tell the perpetually defiant Stewart what he can or cannot do in his free time. He's very much his own man who gives little regard as to what others think about his choices. If he's willing to accept the repercussions, then who are you to say otherwise -- even if bad things seemingly have a way of ensnaring him as of late.

In this instance the fallout entails a retirement tour that will begin not with a chance to finally win the Daytona 500, but trip to the emergency room for a fractured back. An injury that was self-inflicted and entirely preventable.