CHARLOTTE -- Tony Stewart will miss the start of his final NASCAR Sprint Cup season after undergoing back surgery Wednesday to repair a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, Stewart-Haas Racing said Thursday.
An interim driver was not named and a timetable was not given for Stewart's return.
Stewart suffered the injury while riding in a sand car with a group in Southern California on Sunday. He was transported to a local hospital and then flown to North Carolina on Tuesday night, where he was admitted to a Charlotte-area hospital.
SHR said Stewart is expected to make a "full recovery" and return to the No. 14 car this season, which had already been announced as his last.
Stewart, 44, will miss the Daytona 500, a crown jewel event he has not won in his 17-year career.
A burst fracture is a spinal injury which occurs most often in either car crashes or falls from a significant height. The vertebra cannot handle the load when the compression occurs and gets crushed, spreading out the bones.
That type of injury is worse than a compression fracture, which is what Denny Hamlin suffered in 2013 during a crash at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin did not require surgery but missed four races and part of a fifth.
This will be the third time Stewart has missed races in the last four years after making every start in his first 14 seasons.
In 2013, Stewart was forced out of the final 15 races after breaking his leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa. The next year, he missed three races in the aftermath of the incident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car race in upstate New York.
Stewart ran a full season last year but only managed to finish 28th in the series standings.
The back injury means Stewart will not get a chance to race in what was supposed to be his final Daytona 500.
But Thursday's news doesn't mean his championship hopes are over. When he returns, NASCAR will likely make him eligible for a medical waiver (as it did when Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season last year while recovering from a broken leg and foot suffered in an Xfinity Series crash at Daytona).
Should Stewart get himself into the top 30 in points and win a race, he would make the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.