Stewart-Haas Racing announced Thursday that three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart will be sidelined for the beginning of the Sprint Cup Series season after suffering severe back injuries Sunday in an all-terrain vehicle accident.
His SHR team provided more information about his status Thursday, two days after releasing an initial report about the nature of his injuries. A timetable for Stewart’s return has not been determined, but he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the No. 14 Chevrolet in 2016, according to a team release. Plans for an interim driver have not been finalized.
According to the team release, Stewart suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in the Sunday afternoon accident on the West Coast. Stewart was transported to a local hospital and evaluated. Stewart flew back to North Carolina on Tuesday night and was admitted to a Charlotte-area hospital for further evaluation and underwent surgery on Wednesday, according to the team.
The initial statement said Stewart was alert and had movement in his extremities after the incident, which came one day after the driver attended the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Stewart, 44, announced the timetable for his retirement from NASCAR’s top division last Sept. 30, saying that the time was right to end his full-time driving duties. Clint Bowyer has been tapped as Stewart’s replacement in 2017 after a one-year stint this season with HScott Motorsports. Stewart left open the likelihood of competing in other series and events, continuing his history of extracurricular racing on both asphalt and dirt.
“It was a choice that is 100 percent mine, no pressure from anybody,” Stewart said of his decision not to step away from the circuit. “If anything, it’s been the opposite, more people trying to talk me out of it. Everyone in their career makes a decision when it’s time for a change. I think deep down you know when it’s time to do something different and make a change like this.”
Stewart claimed championships in 2002, 2005 and 2011. His most recent crown came in a stirring charge through the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs with five wins — including a decisive one in the season finale — to secure his third title in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards. But Stewart’s performance the last three seasons — complicated by health and personal setbacks — has tapered off.
Stewart missed significant parts of the 2013 and 2014 seasons after accidents in sprint-car competition. In 2013, the Indiana native sat out the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season after suffering severe leg fractures in a crash at a dirt track in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The following year, Stewart skipped three premier-series races after his involvement in an on-track incident that took the life of 20-year-old racer Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt oval in New York.
Stewart competed the entire 2015 campaign, but wound up 28th in the overall driver standings with just three top-10 finishes in 36 races. He entered this season with a new crew chief in Mike Bugarewicz and high hopes for improvement in adapting to a new reduced-downforce aerodynamic rules package.
Even after Thursday’s announcement, Stewart’s farewell season remains in limbo as the primary focus centers on his health and path to recovery.
Regardless of how 2016 shakes out, Stewart has built a racing resume with credentials that will certainly make him a lock for speedy induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame when eligible. Besides being a champion three times over, Stewart has amassed 48 victories in NASCAR’s premier series, including two in the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his home state.
Stewart entered the world of stock-car racing in 1999 with a long-term association with Coach Joe Gibbs’ team, an affiliation that ended one year after that team shifted its manufacturer allegiance to Toyota. In 2009, Stewart entered a partnership with businessman Gene Haas to create a new Chevrolet team in Stewart-Haas Racing, an organization that has grown from a two-car outfit to a four-car operation.
Stewart has also endeared himself to fans with his swashbuckling, no-nonsense style, his ability to excel in various forms of motorsports and his connection to the sport’s home-grown roots. As owner of historic Eldora Speedway in rural Western Ohio, Stewart helped NASCAR return to its dirt-track heritage in 2013 by hosting a successful Camping World Truck Series event, now entering its fourth season.