The NASCAR Sprint Cup season has gotten off to a rough start for three-time series champ Tony Stewart, and we are still a couple of weeks away from the Daytona 500.
Smoke suffered a broken back in an ATV accident in the Glamis Dunes area in California near the Arizona border last Sunday while riding with a group of friends, including Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, NHRA legend Don Prudhomme, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and recently retired Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Stewart, 44, owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing, will miss the 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 21 and likely many other races in what is his farewell season as a full-time NASCAR competitor.
Stewart’s injury will take some shine off Speedweeks at Daytona, which kicks off with the Sprint Unlimited event next Saturday and is followed by the Can-Am Duels on Feb. 18, the races setting the field for the 500.
Stewart, who drives the No. 14 Chevy, has never won in 17 Daytona 500 starts. His fans, and the NASCAR garage in general, were rooting for him to win NASCAR’s Super Bowl before he hung up the helmet.
His injury, described in a team release as a “burst fracture of his first lumbar (L1) vertebra,” is similar to one suffered by Joe Gibbs Racing ace Denny Hamlin in 2013, who subsequently missed four races.
In 2013, Stewart suffered a broken leg in a sprint car wreck and the following year was involved in the tragic death of a young driver in a sprint car race incident in upstate New York.
While SHR believes Stewart will return to the cockpit this season — he had surgery last week — Smoke’s recovery won’t be easy at his age.
The good news at Speedweeks — and for the new season — is that Kyle Busch is ready to defend his Cup championship at Gibbs and that Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are strong bets to keep the youth movement surging forward.
Talking youth — Michigan’s Erik Jones is set to turn NASCAR on its ear in 2016, competing full time for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series and part-time in Sprint Cup.
Jones, the 19-year-old from Byron, won last year’s NASCAR Camping World Trucks Championship for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He is the real deal, so expect him to give the Xfinity series a shake-up.
While Gibbs, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske will dictate much of the action at Daytona and throughout the year, watch for Roush Fenway Racing to rebound after several frustrating Cup seasons.
“Roush Fenway is in a great place for 2016,” owner Jack Roush told reporters during the recent NASCAR media tour in Charlotte, N.C. “We have a lot of changes in place, and yet we have a lot of continuity with things that have been good for us in the past. I have never felt more excited as I walk through the (race shop) and monitor the meetings.”
The Northville resident will field veteran Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse in Cup, with Chris Buescher, the 2015 Xfinity champ, racing for Front Row Motorsports in alliance with RFR.
Biffle, who will be at the wheel of the No. 16 Ford Fusion, has a new crew chief, Brian Pattie, who has worked with him in the past.
“We want to make our cars better,” Biffle said at the NASCAR media tour. “We are excited about the changes that the Ford camp has been doing over the winter. I think it will be a great season for us. We were trending in the right direction at the end of 2015, and we know with these changes we will continue that.”
Jimmie Johnson will be up on the wheel at Hendrick from the start at Daytona, attempting to win a record-tying seventh Cup championship this season, which would place him alongside NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would like to win a first.
Hamlin believes it’s time for him to hoist the trophy.
With Jeff Gordon now retired and sitting in the Fox Sports broadcast booth and Stewart banged up, the young guns could be hard to stop.