By Steve Mickey
Tony Stewart was all set to begin what he hoped would be a farewell season in the Sprint Cup Series that would end with him having the opportunity to run for the title in the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami. He had taken the steps over the winter that he felt would give him the best chances to achieve his goal as he had gotten himself in better physical condition and had made some changes to his team that he felt would definitely make a difference.
All of those changes may not make a difference as Stewart was involved in an ATV accident last weekend in Southern California with some former and current racers. The accident left him with a burst fracture of his L- 1 vertebra that required spinal stabilization surgery once he returned back to North Carolina.
The main concern with a burst fracture is that often times it requires the patient to wear a very bulky stabilizing brace but fortunately for Stewart he will not require the use of a brace during his recovery and rehab. The normal recovery time from this type of surgery is measured in months as the length depends on the progress of the individual’s rehabilitation.
Stewart was said to be up and walking just a couple days after the surgery and his team has set a tentative return to race on May 21, the day of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. If he is able to return at Charlotte that would have him missing the first third of the season (12 races) and it is possible that his return to could be pushed back even further in the season.
Stewart’s injury once again puts NASCAR in a position of whether or not to grant him a wavier for missing races and still be eligible to make the Chase. Kyle Busch was awarded a waiver last season after breaking a leg in the season opening Xfinity race at Daytona that also kept him out of his car until the All-Star Race at Charlotte. Kyle’s brother Kurt was also given a wavier last season after he missed the first couple of races due to some legal problems.
Both of the Busch brothers used their waivers to get into the Chase with Kyle going on and winning the 2016 title. Chase rules state that a driver must start every race and be in the top-30 after the end of the 26-race regular season to be eligible to move into the Chase.
Winning a race is the quickest path to the Chase and Kyle was able to post four wins during a five-race stretch but it took him until the September Darlington race to get into the top-30 in the point standings. Once Chase eligible, he never looked back as he won another race in the Chase’s 10-race schedule on his way to winning his first ever Sprint Cup Championship.
There is no word yet on whether or not NASCAR will give Stewart a waiver that would make him Chase eligible but his situation is different from both of the Busch brothers. Kyle was injured in a NASCAR sanctioned event and Kurt was suspended by the sanctioning body for some legal problems in which he was later found innocent of any wrong doings.
DAYTONA UPDATE: Michael Waltrip Racing may no longer be competing in the Sprint Cup Series but its former owner will be competing in the season-opening Daytona 500 in BK Racing’s No. 83 Toyota. Daytona will be the only race of the season for Waltrip and he will have sponsorship from Maxwell House. Waltrip won his first ever Sprint Cup race in the 2001 Daytona 500 and just two years later he once again made his way to the most famous victory lane in the series. All four of his career victories came at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. He also posted wins in the summer race at Daytona in 2002 and the 2003 fall race at Talladega. BK Racing will also field cars for David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto at Daytona.