Tony Stewart was released from a North Carolina hospital late Sunday afternoon, right around the close of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International, where veteran Max Papis subbed for the three-time Cup champion in the No. 14 Chevrolet SS. Papis twice drove through the field to finish 15th on the day and this result kept Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) 11th in the owner’s point standings.
The SHR team is taking the setback of losing Stewart to a broken right fibula and tibia while leading an Iowa sprint car race rather cautiously. Papis was an obvious substitute as he’d been testing the No. 14 Chevy at Road Atlanta recently and could easily climb into the car.
This weekend the nod goes to Austin Dillon, grandson of competing car owner Richard Childress. Driving one of his grandfather’s cars in June at Michigan International Speedway, where NASCAR’s Sprint Cup races this coming Sunday, Dillon finished a career best 11th, and this weekend marks only his 10th Cup start.
Dillon currently leads the Nationwide standings; that series makes its initial visit to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Saturday. He is the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion and has five victories in that series, including the trucks’ first foray on dirt at Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway on July 24th. Dillon acknowledged it’ll be a rather tight schedule, but is grateful for the Thursday test session on Mid-Ohio’s undulating road course that will allow him to learn the track.
“I’ve watched Austin for many years,” Stewart said, “and at each stage of his racing career he’s been successful. He’s proven to be a very fast learner and he’s able to adapt quickly. Being the youngest champion in the history of the Truck Series is proof of that.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Dillon acknowledged. “We’re really focused on the Nationwide championship and the scheduling is pretty tough this weekend. We’ll be on doing our best to give equal amount of practice time (to both races).” HIs primary difficulty could be qualifying for the Nationwide race. “We might have to start in the rear, but I think we’ve done a good job of trying to work out where each party gets a good amount of practice on both cars.”
Although Dillon has driven only for Richard Childress Racing, “I’ve been around Tony Stewart a lot and know how much his passion is for racing. He’s built a great team over here and that’s the biggest thing. He’s the company that I’ve been able to work with, my grandfather’s [team] and coming over here to Stewart. I know the way they like to work and that is [to] put the best equipment on the track they can. And that is the greatest thing about this opportunity.”
Neither Tony Stewart nor the SHR team has said who will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet at NASCAR’s Saturday night Bristol Motor Speedway race on August 24th.
No return date is set for Stewart to take back the steering wheel on the No. 14 Chevy. According to team manager Greg Zipadelli, Stewart has a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday in North Carolina for a current evaluation. “At that point we’ll have a lot better idea of what we’re doing. But for right now,” he said, “it will probably be a week-by-week decision as far as who is in the car. We’d rather have one or two drivers; I think that will give us some consistency, build some communication between the crew and the driver and that will give us our best chance.
“It may be more than two, maybe three or four,” he alluded. “If that’s the case, we’ll look at each individual racetrack and see who is available that runs good at that racetrack and make the best choice we can.”
If Dillon does a good job for SHR at this weekend’s Michigan round, there’s always the chance he could stay in the seat until Stewart returns from his injury. “We’re talking about other races,” Zipadelli said. “We just kind of want to get through this week here and then plan ahead.”
There were more than 50 inquiries about the ride in the No. 14 Chevy once drivers realized that Stewart’s 521-race start streak had ended. But there’s only one Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing is hoping he’ll be able to get back in the car sooner rather than later. Wednesday’s doctor’s appointment should make that point a bit more clear.