The exit plan for Tony Stewart has gone horribly wrong.
He never really wanted a parade of roses in this, his final NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Stewart, as many know, isn't big on touchy-feely moments. All he wanted to do was ride it out and race. That won't be happening any time soon.
Stewart suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident while at Phoenix recently. Stewart needed surgery and is out for Feb. 21's Daytona 500 — missing his last shot to win the Great American Race. There is no timetable for his return, although based on perspective from doctors, any time earlier than May would be pushing it.
"The last few weeks, it was obvious just how much Tony was looking forward to his final season and that one last shot to win the Daytona 500," said Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR Fox analyst. "So this is a true gut punch for him as a driver."
Stewart was driving around in a dune buggy, having fun with other drivers, including Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon, when the incident happened. He got separated from the pack and came crashing down hard after coming off a steep hill on a sand dune. It took over an hour for the rest of the group to find him.
"When we got there, he was laying on his back outside the car," Gordon told FoxSports.com. "It was pretty obvious that he was in a lot of discomfort. I'll tell you, he's one tough guy, man. Because you knew he was in pain, but he never complained. He never said one thing other than, 'It's my lower back.' My gosh, he's so tough. I would have been screaming like a baby."
The guy nicknamed "Smoke" has lost his feistiness over the last few years. The trigger points are obvious, most notably a dirt-track tragedy at New York's Canandaigua Motorsports Park in August 2014. Kevin Ward Jr. was sideswiped by Stewart's car and died after Ward Jr. had scrambled out of his car, furious at Stewart, for an accident on the previous lap.
Even though Stewart was absolved of any blame by a grand jury, Ward's family could not let it go and has filed a civil lawsuit.
The physical toll includes a long and painful rehab after breaking a leg in a dirt-track racing accident in 2013.
In 2015, Stewart finished 28th in the points standings with just three Top-10 finishes. He will retire this season as a three-time Cup champion, with odds of winning a fourth title seriously stacked against him.
Stenhouse, Mears Unlimited
The lineup for the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night got shuffled with the absence of Stewart and Jeff Gordon (retirement). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Casey Mears will get bumped up to join the field in the 75-lap exhibition race, featuring 25 drivers.
If an eligible driver is unable to enter the race, the open slots are filled based on 2015 Cup Series driver points. Other drivers who have qualified include Danica Patrick (a former Daytona 500 pole winner), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (race winner) and Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson (points).
The event will air live from Daytona International Speedway, starting at 5 p.m. PST (Ch. 11).
Gordon goes VIP
Don't fret if you're not one of the cool kids invited to Jeff Gordon's VIP party. Only 200 folks will snag an invite to the Fox Sports and SI VIP Party that will air on Feb. 20, the night before the Daytona 500. Fox is airing a cross-promotional deal involving the race and 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which comes out Feb. 15.
The event, set from the Halifax River Yacht Club in Daytona Beach, will air on Fox affiliates at 9 p.m. and will feature see models Erin Heatherton and Hannah Ferguson. The broadcast also will spotlight the Daytona Rising renovation project and the upcoming NASCAR season.