Stewart-Haas Racing has confirmed that driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart has been ruled out of competition for the foreseeable future and will not take part in the first race of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the Daytona 500 on February 21.
Stewart was injured in a non-racing accident at the weekend when a sand buggy he was driving flipped over while driving on a beach in San Diego, California.
"The dunes are unpredictable and you can land harder on some spots than others," fellow NASCAR driver Greg Biffle told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
this week. "I've knocked the wind out of myself."
A new update from SHR said that Stewart had sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident Sunday while holidaying on the West Coast.
The statement added that Stewart had been transported to a local hospital following the non-racing accident and promptly evaluated. He was awake and alert throughout the process and able to move all of his extremities.
Stewart was subsequently flown to North Carolina on Tuesday evening where he was admitted to a Charlotte-area hospital for further evaluation. On Wednesday, he underwent surgery.
"The subsequent recovery period means Stewart will miss the beginning of the Sprint Cup season," the team statement continued.
"A timetable for Stewart's return has not been determined, but he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the #14 Chevrolet in 2016.
"Plans for an interim driver have not been finalised."
Stewart has never won the Daytona 500, and now will never get the opportunity again. The 44-year-old three-time former Cup champion had already announced that the upcoming 2016 Cup season would be his last as a driver in the series and that he would be retiring from competition after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
"On behalf of everyone at NASCAR, I wish Tony a full recovery and look forward to seeing him back in our sport when he's ready to return," said NASCAR chairman Brian France on Tuesday, when the initial story that Stewart has been hospitalised after an accident was made public by the team.
It's the latest in a run of bad luck for Stewart, who suffered a serious double fracture to his leg in August 2013 that curtailed his involvement in that year's championship and forced him to sit out the final 15 races of the year, only just making it back to fitness in time for the start of the 2014.
The following year Stewart was involved in a fatal accident in a regional dirt track race in New York state which resulted in the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. Stewart was cleared by the police and district attorney of any criminal wrongdoing but is still facing a civil suit for wrongful death from the Ward family.
Although he did complete a full 36-race season in 2015, it proved to be Stewart's worst season in NASCAR and led to him deciding it was time to follow Jeff Gordon's example in retiring from the sport for good after one final valedictory season, although he left the door open to the possibility of competing in other series and events, continuing his history of extracurricular racing on both asphalt and dirt.
"It was a choice that is 100 percent mine, no pressure from anybody," Stewart said at the time of his decision. "If anything, it's been the opposite, more people trying to talk me out of it. Everyone in their career makes a decision when it's time for a change. I think deep down you know when it's time to do something different and make a change like this."
Clint Bowyer is due to take over the seat of the #14 once Stewart retires. The former Michael Waltrip Racing driver is spending this season in an interim role at HScott Motorsports, but may be called up by SHR to take over for Stewart earlier than expected until the driver is fully convalesced provided sponsorship issues don't preclude it.
Other potential replacements include Sam Hornish Jr who has been replaced at Richard Petty Motorsport this season by NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Brian Scott, of former Front Row Motorsports driver David Gilliland. JJ Yeley and Josh Wise also have connections with Stewart through their sprint-car backgrounds.
Other candidates from the Xfinity ranks include Ty Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith, while former Red Bull Racing and MWR driver Brian Vickers may also be in the frame after missing most of 2015 with a recurrence of blood clotting issues.
Confirmation that Stewart will miss the opening rounds in 2016 doesn't necessarily also mean that his final season will be wrecked.
Last year, Kyle Busch was injured the day before the Daytona 500 and ended up being forced to sit out the first 11 races of the season with a broken leg and foot, but he returned in May and still managed to fight his way back into contention, make the Chase cut-off, and finally go on to be crowned Cup champion for the first time in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November.