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Stewart’s Driving Career Remains On Hold

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2016
Tony Stewart still not certain when he will return to the cockpit. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Tony Stewart still not certain when he will return to the cockpit. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

The start-me-up date of Tony Stewart’s 18th and final NASCAR season remains open-ended following the latest evaluation of the back injury the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion suffered in a dune buggy accident on Jan. 31.

Stewart was examined by doctors in Kannapolis, N.C., on Wednesday, 39 days after suffering a burst fracture of the Lumbar-1 vertebra during the all-terrain vehicle accident while on a recreational outing in the desert outside Palm Springs, Calif.

Satisfied with the amount of healing that has taken place, Stewart’s doctors implemented a rehabilitation regimen designed to accelerate recovery. While a full recovery is anticipated, future evaluations will be necessary before a timetable is set for Stewart’s return to the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS in NASCAR’s premier series.

Stewart, who was on the desert ride with several Cup peers, was injured when his dune buggy crested a sand dune and landed awkwardly. He was hospitalized for three days in Southern California before returning to North Carolina, where he underwent back surgery on Feb. 3. Wednesday’s evaluation was the first since that successful procedure was performed.

Stewart, 44, previously had announced that the 2016 season would be his last as a Cup driver. He will, however, remain a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with businessman Gene Haas as the organization switches manufacturers from Chevrolet to Ford beginning in 2017.

Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon have subbed for Stewart in the No. 14 Chevy during the first three races of the season. Plans for an interim driver for Race No. 4 this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway have not been finalized.

Stewart has missed several Cup races since August 2013, when he was sidelined for the final 15 events after suffering a broken right leg in a Sprint Car crash in Oskaloosa, Iowa. That injury snapped a streak of 521 consecutive Cup starts. In August 2014, Stewart sat out three races after he was involved in a Sprint Car incident in which Kevin Ward Jr. was fatally injured in Canandaigua, N.Y.

Stewart addressed his healing process and a variety of subjects during a news conference at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend. An edited version of that transcript follows:

QUESTION: Tony, can you give us a medical update on how you’re doing?

TONY STEWART: “For a month now, I haven’t done anything but just kind of chill-out. The doctors want me lying in bed and walking. They don’t want me sitting and standing.  I’m definitely breaking the rules. They didn’t want me flying out here. They didn’t want me in Atlanta. But I can’t lay in bed any longer. It’s about to kill me.

“We did everything short of bubble wrap me to ride out here on the plane. We were as comfortable as can be.

“We feel pretty good. It’s like everything else: your body tells you when it’s had enough, when it’s sore. You just got to listen to it. We try not to sit any longer than we have to, try not to stand very long. Even if I’m around a small group, if I take three or four steps back, stay in the group, it almost looks like you’re eager to go to the bathroom, but you have to move around a little bit to keep the weight from hanging there and being hard on the rods on my back.”

QUESTION: Has anybody from SHR talked to anybody from NASCAR as to a waiver? Do you think you might be able to come back and have a shot at making the Chase?

TONY STEWART: “I’ll do the best I can. That’s all I ever do, is do the best that I can. Whatever they decide they decide. I would like to think it’s going to be similar to what they did last year with Kyle (Busch).

“The biggest thing I’m worried about is just getting this healed properly. That’s my biggest concern, is just making sure that it heals right. But, you know, it’s just a waiting process right now. Honestly, like I said, the biggest concern is just making sure it heals right the first time.”

QUESTION: When you were going through your leg rehab (in late 2013), you talked about how painful it was, the scar tissue stuff. Has this been any easier at all on you? Also, do you feel like you have enough mobility and pain tolerance that once they say the bone is healed, you can be in the car right away?

TONY STEWART: “When they clear me to do it, I can promise you I’ll be ready to do it. We’ve been through enough pain tolerance with the leg and this, I don’t think it’s a big drama.

“It’s very similar. I mean, like I said, your body tells you when it’s had enough for the day. It’s just paying attention to it. When you start feeling like you’re getting sore, that’s a good sign that it’s time to get off your back. Even if I lay down for 10 minutes, it’s like it recharges the battery and kind of makes it feel good enough to get going again.

“When it gets time to get back in the car, we’ll be plenty ready. I’ve been driving a street car for two and a-half weeks now, it doesn’t bother me. I just can’t do it for long periods of time.”

QUESTION: How important is it for you to be able to come to the track and have the interaction? The fans seeing you, that has to be a big boost. Talk about what it means for you, even in your recovery, to be able to come to the racetrack, be around the sport you love.

TONY STEWART: “The hard part is I don’t know if being here is actually hurting me or helping me. I don’t really know. Like I say, the doctors don’t want me to be out here. At the same time it’s good for me. I think it’s good for our team more than anything. I want to be here to support them. I want them to know that even though I’ve kind of put them in a box again, that I’m going to be here and I’m going to be supportive. That’s a big deal to me, to be here and let those guys know I’m behind them 100 percent.

“I want to be at the track. That’s where I always want to be. That’s a big deal to me.  It’s hard. Especially after the leg injury a couple years ago (after the Sprint Car accident), I haven’t forgot how long I sat and laid around. You lay around now ’cause you’re being told to and it’s like, I can’t do it anymore. I’ve got to get up and get moving around.

“I’m a lot happier (at the track). I would rather be here and be in pain than be at home, be comfortable, and no pain. The pain is worth it to me. I don’t mind it.”

QUESTION: I also heard you taking more of a role on the radio. It almost seems like you’re getting ready for your next job in this sport, which would be more on the management side. How does it feel acclimating to that role, getting a view of what it’s going to be like to step out of the car?

TONY STEWART: “I was on top of the spotter’s stand to help Ty (Dillon) out (at Atlanta Motor Speedway). Brian (Vickers) has been around this long enough. He knows what to do. He doesn’t need me telling him what to do.

“Ty, after talking to him after practice, we realized even if he didn’t need any help, it was just to have me up there and know if he had a question he could ask. It was a big deal to him. That’s why we did it last week. I thought he did a great job (Dillon started 18th and finished 17th, two laps down to winner Jimmie Johnson). He far exceeded my expectations. But I don’t know that I think about it from what I’m going to do next year because I probably won’t be on the spotter’s stand next year either.

“It’s just saying, OK, what does my role be right now? I can’t drive the car, but what can I do to be productive and help?”

QUESTION: I think it was during your Periscope session at Daytona that a fan asked you something to the effect of…would you reconsider extending your retirement year to next year. You were very adamant that wasn’t going to happen. Did you just make up your mind that this was going to be it before the accident even happened so you never gave it any consideration?

TONY STEWART: “That’s what we said in the announcement last year that this year would be the last year. I’m not going to change the plan because I got hurt. These are the cards we were dealt. It was a weird accident that nobody ever thought would happen. I mean, I can’t even make the story about how I got hurt, I can’t even make it sound cool. I got hurt driving five miles an hour. That’s hard to make sound cool.

“I wish I could tell you the story of I was jumping a 50-foot gap, running 60 miles an hour, it flipped over, caught on fire and I broke my back. That’s not what happened. I went over the lip of a dune, went down 20, 25-feet, landed like a lawn dart. It broke my back. It’s hard to make that sound cool, but that’s just what it is.

“That’s the cards we’re dealt. We’ll play the rest of the year out. As soon as they tell me I can be back in the car, I’m going to be wide-open, 100 percent. I’m not going to leave anything on the table each race. It’s get everything I can get. At the end of the year we got what we got. I’ll go on with the rest of it afterwards.”

QUESTION: There’s a lot of talk behind the scenes about how your primary sponsor has handled this injury. How has Mobil 1 been, your sponsors, about you not being in the car?

TONY STEWART: “I think it shows how good a partner we have with Mobil 1, first of all. They’ve been through a lot with us the last couple years and stood behind us, supported us 100 percent. That’s not changed this year, too. I think it speaks volumes to what Mobil 1 means to SHR.

“I don’t know how you handle it. You can’t predict it’s going to happen. Obviously if you had a choice, you would never let any of these things happen. But you got to move on and you got to do the best you can. Luckily we have partners that care more about what we’re doing than me being inside the race car each week. They care about the program, they care about everybody that works in the program. We keep pushing forward.

“They’ve been supportive through every one of the things we’ve been through in the last three years.”

QUESTION: About you calling it quits, you made that decision. Have you given any thoughts, any one-offs, anything in the future for the Daytona 500 or anything along those lines?

TONY STEWART: “No, not even 1 percent considering it. There’s races that I want to run. I honestly am trying to figure out how I could run the (NASCAR Camping World)Truck race at Eldora (Speedway in Ohio, owned by Stewart). It sounds easy to sign up and do it. I got a lot of responsibilities. But I’d love to run the Truck race there.

“I’d love to run some Mod Tour races at Loudon (N.H.) when we’re up there. There’s one-off races like that, but there are not going to be one-off races in the Cup Series.”

QUESTION: Again, do we have any estimation when you’ll be back yet?

TONY STEWART: “They have a projected window, but you can’t pinpoint it until we get further along. Literally I haven’t done rehab or anything.

“This is a different injury than the leg injury (suffered in August 2013). The leg injury was a much more severe injury, but this is a much more sensitive injury. If this doesn’t heal right, if we do something that messes it up, it could affect me the rest of my life. My leg, if I did something too soon, it just made it hurt, was more pain, but it wasn’t going to mess anything up.

“This, if we do anything too soon, we could mess it up for the rest of my life. It’s more important to let this thing heal right. We’re not rushing to get back in the car. Like I said, the No. 1 priority is to give it the opportunity to heal right the first time. Once they say we’re all right to get in it, we’ll get in it. We’re not going to push that issue. We’re not going to try to do something before we’re ready. We’re going to definitely make sure it’s done right.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2016
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