TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Tony Stewart no longer has any choice about wearing a head-and-neck restraint, and that makes him uneasy.
A new rule forcing drivers to wear either a HANS or Hutchens device begins with qualifying Friday for the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, one of the most dangerous tracks in NASCAR.
Stewart is NASCAR's lone holdout on trying such restraints, citing claustrophobia and questions about their effectiveness. The mandate now takes the issue out of his hands, and Stewart isn't happy about it.
''I want to wear something, but I haven't found anything yet that I'm comfortable with,'' he said. ''It's not that I don't want to wear it, and I'm not being bullheaded about this, but there is nothing right now that I'm comfortable wearing inside the race car.''
Before Wednesday, the use of a restraint system was encouraged by NASCAR but not required. Still, 42 of 43 drivers routinely wore one of the two available devices -- a factor NASCAR said played a part in the mandate.
Widespread use of the devices, which limit movement of a driver's head and neck upon impact, began shortly after seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt died of a fractured skull in the season-opening Daytona 500. Neither Earnhardt nor three other NASCAR drivers who died of head or neck injuries in the preceding nine months was wearing a restraining device.
Because of his claustrophobia, the bulky, over-the-shoulder HANS device has never been an option for Stewart. He tried the less-cumbersome Hutchens device one time during a testing session at Talladega in August, but was bothered by it and grew suspicious of its reliability when the series of straps and buckles were attached to his body a different way each of the three times he got into the car.
He found its presence a distraction and decided that wasn't a safe state of mind to have when driving at speeds close to 190 mph.
Stewart had a similar problem when he once tried a foam headrest in an open-wheel car. The headrest sat on the rim of the driver's cockpit and slightly touched the top of his shoulders -- still too much of a distraction for him.
''I ran one lap, pulled in and bailed out of the car because I felt like I was getting trapped inside the car,'' he said. ''It was because of my own anxiety that comes from being claustrophobic. That's how the HANS device makes me feel.''
NASCAR said it tried several times in the past few days to contact Stewart and discuss the mandate with him, finally calling car owner Joe Gibbs to explain its decision.
''We expect them to comply with the rules,'' said NASCAR vice president George Pyne. ''Joe understands what we are trying to do and that it is the right thing for our industry, which Tony is a big part of. We fully expect that Tony will race this weekend with the device on.''
But Pyne admitted NASCAR has no penalty on the books yet should Stewart fail to comply with the mandate. And there's always the possibility that the independent and outspoken Stewart could attempt to get into his car without one of the restraints.
Talladega is not a place where Stewart needs any kind of distraction. At 2.66-miles, the high-banked oval is the longest and fastest track on the circuit. The field is typically bunched together for the entire 500 miles, meaning he should already be on edge from the bumper-to-bumper racing.
The discomfort from a new safety device could heighten that.
''If I have a helmet device that doesn't fit properly or isn't comfortable, then how comfortable am I going to be six inches from guys who are on all four corners of my race car?'' he asked.
Jeff Burton, an active participant in the push for safety in NASCAR, had some sympathy for Stewart's plight but still thinks the restraints are the right thing.
''I really wish that NASCAR didn't have to do something like this where they had to mandate drivers to wear a safety device,'' Burton said. ''People should take the initiative to try and make it safer for themselves.''
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