Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Stewart ready to return from injury-ridden 2013; Chase fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup title
Tony Stewart has an impeccable résumé. He’s an IndyCar Series champion, coming within a whisker of an Indy 500 victory. He’s a three-time NASCAR Cup champion, the only driver who can lay claim to a “Winston Cup,” “Nextel Cup” and “Sprint Cup” title. He’s currently tied for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with 48 Cup trophies on his shelf. Stewart is, without a doubt, one of the best drivers ever to grace North American motorsports.
But as the 2014 season opens, he’s also damaged goods.
Stewart’s racing career was derailed on Aug. 5, at a racetrack far from the spotlight of NASCAR, when he broke both bones in his right lower leg in a sprint car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway. He had to undergo three different surgeries on the leg, missing the remainder of the 2013 Sprint Cup season. Stewart is slated to return to the seat for Speedweeks, but there will inevitably be questions about his ability to race going forward.
“I have a huge appreciation for just daily things that I can’t do now,” he said in November, while still struggling to walk. “It’s like I have to plan, I have to think about stuff. When I go to leave, I don’t want to have to go back up those steps.”
Those are troubling words for a driver slated to go 200 miles per hour come Daytona. Even though “Smoke” has been cleared to race in the 500, he admits he’ll only be about 65 percent. For a driver who hasn’t raced in six months — even one of Stewart’s caliber — question marks remain. Will he be less aggressive, subconsciously backing down when it counts due to worry or anticipation of pain? It’s happened before to injured drivers, and until Stewart has a few races under his belt, there’s no way to know what the aftereffects of the injury, physical or psychological, might be. Even this generation’s A.J. Foyt has his limits.
It’s important to note that Stewart’s 2013 season wasn’t exactly championship-caliber before the injury. He was in the top 10 in points only twice before the accident, for a total of two weeks. He did have a win, but his season started out so poorly that he didn’t look like the same driver he was in 2011-12. After Mark Martin posted similar results in a substitute role, crew chief Steve Addington was canned as part of an organization-wide reshuffling.
So in comes Chad Johnston from the No. 56 of Michael Waltrip Racing to lead the No. 14 team’s program. In two-and-a-half seasons together, Johnston and Martin Truex Jr. had one win and a lone Chase appearance (2012). Johnston is a risk-taker, armed with a youthful mindset, which is a good match for an aggressive veteran in Stewart. He’ll be one of three new head wrenches in all as the organization grows to four teams.
How that expansion happened will also have an effect on Stewart’s season. Co-owner Gene Haas made the decision to hire Kurt Busch himself, without consultation, while his partner was struggling through leg surgery. Stewart has downplayed any potential rift, taking the standpoint that you don’t cry over spilled milk. But it’s clear that Haas, enamored with Busch, will be more involved in SHR’s day-to-day operations, an abrupt change for a dogged independent like Stewart. As for the drivers themselves, Stewart, Busch and Kevin Harvick are championship-caliber, but all three are also volatile personalities. In addition, Danica Patrick struggled mightily in her rookie season and needs to improve. If things go south on any front, it could prove to be a distraction.
On the upside, Stewart-Haas Racing gets both chassis and engines from reigning champion Hendrick Motorsports, which should remain ahead of the curve on NASCAR’s Gen-6. Stewart’s 2011 title laid to rest questions of whether Hendrick was giving SHR lesser stuff, and with two new teammates to draw information from, playing “catch-up” could come more easily. Sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1 and several smaller deals keeps this team top-tier.
The problem is, there are so many question marks: Stewart’s health, a third new crew chief in four years and a team dynamic with the potential to be explosive. It’s a little like a minefield — one wrong move, and this team goes from potential title contender to struggling. Stewart’s had a little of both the past few years, taking the racing legend full circle. As he turns 43 in May, it’s like he’s a rookie with something to prove all over again.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Despite age and injury, Tony Stewart is still viewed as the gold standard by his competitors.
“Stewart is probably the most well-rounded driver in the series,” one crew chief says. “Not only has he won races in everything he’s run, but he’s won championships in most of them. He’s a badass. He doesn’t care about anything but winning — even at this stage in his career. … He’s proven that he can win in the Chase format, and if he and Chad Johnston can learn how to make the car work on intermediate racetracks, he’ll give the field a run for the title.”
Despite the almost universal respect, there are questions surrounding the three-time Cup champ. “He’s recovering from the broken leg, and that could affect his stamina and may create discomfort while he’s driving,” another crew chief notes. “He’s also had consistency issues with crew chiefs. He is a team owner, and the requirements of running a race team can be a distraction. With the organization increasing to four teams next season — and Kurt Busch coming over against Stewart's wishes — the tension in the shop could be detrimental to his success. Stewart’s temper can get the best of him at times, and that can cause him, and his team, to melt down.”
Looking at Checkers: Truly one of the most versatile drivers in NASCAR, Stewart can win — and has won — on every type of track.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s still a pied piper on the plate tracks — most notably Daytona, where he had the car to beat in last year’s 500 before it was totaled in someone else’s mess.
Good Sleeper Pick: His track record says a lot. But it does not say “sleeper.”
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington, where Stewart is winless in his Cup Series career.
Insider Tip: Stewart has won a race in each of his 15 years in the Cup Series. Only twice in that time has he been limited to one victory in a season (and that includes 2013, when he sat out 15 races).
No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1
Owner: Tony Stewart
Crew Chief: Chad Johnston
Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: 1st (2002, ’05, ’11)
Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971
Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro