Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has been allowed to leave hospital and head home, almost six days after he was admitted following a four-car crash in a local racing event in southern Iowa left him with a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg.
In a post from the Stewart-Haas Racing team's official Twitter account, it was confirmed that Stewart "is out of the hospital & resting as comfortably as he can at home. Thx for the thoughts & prayers."
Stewart had initial surgery to stabilise the Grade 2 injury last Monday night and was then moved to a North Carolina hospital for a second subsequent procedure on Thursday to insert a metal rod into the fracture to promote healing. Doctors opted to keep him in for observation for several days to ensure there were no secondary infections.
Stewart's absence from this week's Cup race at Watkins Glen brought to an end a run of 521 consecutive Cup starts dating back to 1998. He was replaced in the car at short notice by Italy's Max Papis.
It's not clear how long Stewart will be out of action, but the injury already appears to have brought his hopes of making the 2013 Chase to an end. Merely missing this weekend's race the Glen was enough to dump him down six positions to 17th place in the standings, well outside the top ten and also now three spots away from qualifying via one of the 'most wins wildcards'.
The Stewart-Haas team has said that it doesn't know when Stewart will be able to make a return. Doctors have said that typically with such an injury a patient needs four to eight weeks to start to start making a return to full activity; in the meantime, the need for painkillers and blood thinners would rule Stewart out of NASCAR competition.
"I'm very, very hopeful that we get Tony back in the car shortly, maybe in a month or two, and see how it goes from there," said Stewart's co-owner in the team, Gene Haas. "They always tell you a broken leg takes anywhere from two to four months and I think you just have to go with that.
"It just depends on how fast he heals. I know he had some really good surgeons and they put all those bones back in place. Hopefully they'll heal fast," he added.
While Papis was a clear choice to sub for Stewart at a road course such as Watkins Glen, the decision over who will take over the #14 car for the rest of Stewart's enforced absence has been the centre of considerable speculation over the last week, with Nationwide Series stars Regan Smith, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson among those being talked about. [Update: Dillon gets Michigan outing
Stewart-Haas competition director Greg Zipadelli was quick to rule out Larson, however, saying it was too soon to subject the talented 21-year-old to such intense pressure. "Kyle Larson obviously is an awesome race car driver and we're only seeing the beginnings of what he has to offer the sport," Zipadelli told reporters last week. "He's at a really crucial spot in his career of learning everything he can and not getting fed to the wolves too soon."
Another wrinkle in the considerations is that next weekend's Cup and Nationwide races are at different venues - Michigan and Mid-Ohio respectively - and inclement weather could get in the way of transporting a driver from one event to the other in the short time available.
"We've got a few candidates and we're talking to a few people. We've got a lot of people that have obviously reached out. We're not sure if we can put one person in until Tony gets back or we're going to have to do multiple people," he continued. "I would prefer to put one person in that we felt was capable of doing a good, solid job and trying to build some chemistry with the crew and crew chief."
Zipadelli suggested that he wasn't expecting to see Stewart back in the car for at least three races and wasn't optimistic that he would even return in time for the final pre-Chase outing at Richmond on September 7.
"It's a few weeks, so we need the next two or three weeks lined up," he said. "Most importantly is that he gets healed and gets the proper attention that he needs so that it's not something that bothers him down the rest of his life and we get him back in this #14 car."
With Stewart out of the running, the team's hopes of making the Chase now rest with their second driver Ryan Newman, currently in 14th place in the points but who crucially has a hold on the second of the most wins wildcards.
"I think obviously now that the #39 is our only chance, we will do whatever we can to help," agreed Zipadelli. "I don't know that it's any more than what we have been doing, but we'll certainly do our best to work together as a team, and if there's anything they need, we will certainly do our best to give them what they need to have that opportunity."
Over the weekend, Stewart's decision to race in regional sprint car events during the week - even at the risk of injury that could affect his Sprint Cup 'day job' - was strongly supported by his fellow drivers in the NASCAR paddock.
"I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around and it's troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles," said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "The guy has done so much for our sport and of course we don't want to see him injured, but I've been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it.
"I personally praise him for all that he does for our sport, including driving sprint cars Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Johnson added.
"I tell him all the time when he goes and runs the sprint car races and wins or is competitive, I'm like, 'Man, that's awesome and that's unbelievable,'" said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "I applaud him and definitely support him in that effort. It's just unfortunate that this has happened."
"It's a risk that you take," contributed another former Cup champion, Kurt Busch. "It's the fulfilment of life that you're trying to enjoy. At the end of the day, who are we to judge what Tony is enjoying for life versus what he should be doing?"
Stewart reportedly decided to leave Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 after a decade of racing together after JGR requested that he stop his extra-curricular activities. As co-owner of his current team, Stewart is free to make and indeed break the rules - but also bears the brunt of the responsibility should anything go wrong, as it did last week.
"I've never had a sponsor restrict me from doing any extracurricular racing or an owner," said Busch, who is himself said to be considering an outing in the IZOD IndyCar Series in the coming months - possibly as a prelude to an entry in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. "They've just always said, 'You're 100 percent responsible if something does go wrong.'"
"I just hate to see anybody badmouth Tony for anything he's doing," contributed motorsports legend AJ Foyt. "He ain't no prima donna and life is short, and we don't know how we are going to die or what's going to happen."
But Stewart's non-stop racing itinerary isn't for everyone: "I couldn't do that and I don't choose to do that because of just different things that are happening in my life and the choice that I make," admitted Gordon.
"I've got two kids under ten," said Marcos Ambrose. "The bottom line is I'm trying to balance pleasure, work and family. NASCAR is a very heavy schedule and I want to make sure that when I have some days that aren't directly involved in NASCAR competition that I spend it with my family.
"It's a personal choice for me," Ambrose added. "We all admire and respect Tony for who he is and what a racer he is."
Zipadelli said that in light of last week's accident, Stewart will doubtless need to re-evaluate the reward/risk balance of weekday racing in the future.
"There is a difference in the amount of responsibility we have and obligations to other people, and that's where I think that's kind of where it gets sticky," admitted Zipadelli."That doesn't mean anything other than we will talk about it, we'll discuss it and we'll try and do what's best for Stewart