By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
As previously reported, a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra will keep Tony Stewart out of the car for some time. Some are already saying its a horrible end to an illustrious career, but before we get carried away just remember this injury will not end Stewart’s 2016 season and it does not prevent him from possibly having the ultimate send-off in his final season.
According to a report from Dave Moody, Stewart is responding well to surgery and his team expects a possible return around the time of NASCAR’s All-Star weekend in May. If the report turns out to be true, and Stewart doesn’t have any setbacks in his recovery, he could still walk into retirement with an extra championship trophy on his mantle.
Of course, that scenario has a lot of caveats. Stewart would need an injury waiver from NASCAR to be eligible for Chase contention, and then he would need to perform at another level than we’ve seen from him over the past three seasons. Since 2013, Stewart has only recorded one win and eight top five finishes, so he cannot produce at that level and have any shot at making it into the Chase. However, if Stewart indeed returns during All-Star weekend, don’t count him out. This is the exact scenario, albeit different injury, that we saw with eventual 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
Busch, as you remember, missed the first 11 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season while recovering from a broken leg and foot. When Busch returned he faced a huge deficit to make it into NASCAR’s Chase. Busch responded with the perfect combination of determination and a car with tons of speed. Busch strung together four wins, in a five race stretch during June and July, and he set up an improbable comeback to ultimately capture his first-ever series championship.
The odds of that type of a comeback are extremely slim, and the odds of that type of comeback happening in the top-tier series of motorsports in the United States two years in a row are even more slim. Add in the fact that Stewart suffered a very serious back injury and also the fact that when he returns to racing he will be 45 years old, and the odds look even more overwhelming. Busch was just 29 years old when he sustained his injuries last February.
That being said, Stewart is a different breed of driver and human being in general. Not many gave him a shot at capturing the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after he struggled mightily through the first 26 races of the season. Stewart was able to sneak into the Chase that year, and then he came alive. Stewart willed the No. 14 Chevrolet to five victories over the final 10 races of 2011 and in doing so he was able to win the title in a tie-breaker over Carl Edwards.
In doing so, Stewart became the first driver/owner to win a championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat way back in 1992.
Stewart has defied odds and logic throughout his entire NASCAR career.
When he broke into the Sprint Cup Series in 1999, many expected Stewart to have a steep learning curve as he was transitioning from open-wheeled Indy Cars to big heavy stock cars. That wasn’t the case. Stewart set a record by winning three races in his rookie campaign, and just three years later he was celebrating his first championship in the series. Stewart made the transition look so easy that other open wheel stars like Dario Franchitti, Juan Montoya, Jacques Villaneuve and Danica Patrick have all tried replicating his success. None of them have captured lightning in a bottle like Stewart did.
Odds have been heavily stacked up against Stewart for the past 18 years, and every time he beats them.
I’m not saying we crown Stewart the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion yet, I’m merely suggesting that we don’t rule out an ultimate John Wayne-esque finish to one of the most brilliant NASCAR careers history has ever seen.
Image: Chris Graythen/Getty Images