Stewart replacement to be announced Monday

As told to you first by readers, Stewart will be out a long time

A rather solemn looking Greg Zipadelli told reporters Friday that in his initial conversations with injured driver and team owner Tony Stewart this week, the three-time NASCAR champ was in good spirits but more concerned with his team and the whole Stewart-Haas Racing organization than with his own injuries.

"He was in as great spirits, as good as he could be in," SHR Director of Competition Zipadelli said. "He was a little down, felt like he let a lot of people down, the world, his fans.

"I know all the support he’s gotten from the fans and racers here has helped him a lot. We talked about that and it’s cool the outreach this area has given him."

Stewart remains hospitalized in North Carolina after undergoing a second surgery Thursday to repair breaks to both the tibia and fibula in his right leg after crashing in a sprint car race in Iowa on Monday night.

There may even be further surgery necessary and Zipadelli said there is no timetable for Stewart’s return yet. Road racing champion Max Papis will be driving Stewart’s No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Chevrolet in Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Zipadelli said he expected to speak with Stewart this weekend to decide on a replacement for future races and hope to have someone in place for at least the upcoming races at Michigan and Bristol, Tenn. by Monday.

Immediate speculation is that Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith is a leading candidate. Although Smith said he has had no discussions at all with the team, he said was definitely open to the possibility if scheduling permits. He is currently ranked second in the Nationwide championship points standings.

"I think I would prefer, from this point on, 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 the crew chief," Zipadelli said, explaining his preference for finding one driver versus a revolving door of week-to-week replacements.

"There are a lot of those little details that make up for a good day on Sunday. Pit stops and how the driver gets in and out of the box, on and off pit road, all those things you take into account so the longer you get to work with someone the better you get to know them.

"I feel like that’s the better chance we have of having some consistent results. I don’t know that we will honestly be able to do that just with drivers. The drivers that we would like to put they are all racing for a championship and we need to be respectful of their position. Make sure we don’t hinder them in the position that they are in."

Meanwhile, the other two Stewart-Haas drivers, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, said the morale remains high at the organization with team members determined to rally around their leader, who will be missing his first Cup race after 521 consecutive starts.

Patrick found out about the accident almost immediately because her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., also had a sprint car in the field and had been monitoring the race. They visited Stewart in the hospital this week.

"And he’s in typical Tony spirits, he’s already hassling the nurses," Patrick said, adding that Stewart’s job as team leader will be missed as much as his driving potential.

"He has a good spirit about him," Patrick said. "He’ll just be missed from a presence and morale standpoint. I told him I’ll do my best to keep everybody on the up and up."

Other drivers talked about how strange it was not having five-time Watkins Glen winner Stewart — one of the sport’s strongest personalities — in the garage area, much less lined up to compete this weekend.

"It really hasn’t sunk in yet, you know,’’ said Jeff Gordon, who this week was in Knoxville, Iowa, site of sprint car’s biggest event known as the Knoxville Nationals.

"Being there and seeing the impact there, being here and seeing the impact here. … Tony’s just so influential as a driver and a supporter of racing, it’s tough."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he found out about Stewart’s accident when he just randomly checked his iPad in the middle of the night Monday while having trouble sleeping.

"I just couldn’t believe it, I thought I was dreaming," Earnhardt said.

"Tony is one of my competitors and you’re really not supposed to have the admiration for someone you want to beat on the race rack. … but you all know what kind of guy he is," Earnhardt said. “I hate it for him just knowing what being out of the car is like and knowing how much he loves what he does and enjoys driving no matter what it is.

"He's a lot of fun to race with so you'll miss that competition as much as everybody wants their job to be easier, you'll miss the competition that Tony brings to the table every week and I think the fans will that as well. He’s tough though. He’ll probably be back in the car before doctors let him."

Having been Stewart’s longtime crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing before joining Stewart’s new team, Zipadelli knows better than anyone how tough this weekend in particular – and the next few weeks – will be for his friend.

"I think that is a really difficult moment for anybody that has been in the sport and has raced,’’ Zipadelli said. “I think his personality and as much of a racer that he is I think it will be harder on him than anybody else.

"When you look at the consecutive starts that he has had over here and how many races he has run and now he can’t get in his car. I imagine that would be really tough on him. We will all be there and support him. It’s still his car he’s just out for you know a temporary spell so we will do the best we can with trying to keep him cheered up as a group.’’

Added Papis with a smile, “I can tell you from the driver's standpoint, you are definitely not happy.

"I have been in this situation and you can picture it as you want. You don’t want nobody to put his butt in your car, nobody. Knowing Tony for over 20 years I just can tell you guys that I really feel that something like this that happened to him; he is going to be back with a lot more aggression that he has ever had.

"Because I think that being out of the car sometimes opens up your eyes on a lot of little things. Sometimes God makes things happen for a reason. You never know."

"But watching and listening to how much love there is for this guy in this sport is really overwhelming. People really love him and it’s for real."

Leave a Reply