With the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s regular season set for Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, a driver who isn’t even participating briefly became the center of attention early this week when Tony Stewart spoke publicly for the first time since a nasty wreck a month ago.
Stewart addressed the sprint car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway that broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg Aug. 5 and left him out of racing for the rest of this season. The three-time Sprint Cup series champion was transported to a nearby hospital immediately and underwent surgery, at the time rendering in doubt the status of his No. 14 Chevrolet.
Several weeks later, Stewart’s team announced Mark Martin would take over for 12 of the last 13 races, including this weekend’s Federated Auto Parts 400 that will determine the final five spots for the Chase for the Cup.
Martin, who has finished second a record five times in the driver’s standings, is widely recognized as the best driver not to have won an owner’s title. Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said Martin, among the most respected drivers in NASCAR, was Stewart’s first choice to replace him when he learned the injury would keep him sidelined until at least the Daytona 500 in February.
“One of my goals is, I know that Zippy’s goal is to get good, solid performance, but more than that I want to be able to bring something to the organization in stability,” Martin said recently, “and hopefully we can turn the 14 car back to Tony an even stronger organization than it was when he stepped away and got injured.”
While Stewart was recovering in the hospital, his team stayed in the headlines when Gene Haas, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, unilaterally commissioned Kurt Busch to drive as a fourth team. Reports surfaced Stewart was livid over adding a fourth team to the Stewart-Haas stable without his endorsement.
Haas initially said he might have overstepped his bounds by hiring Busch, who reportedly has not had the most cordial relationship with Stewart over the years. Busch, a regular on Forbes magazine’s list of most disliked athletes, also hasn’t been exactly drinking buddies with future Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick.
But Haas and Stewart apparently have resolved any differences over the hiring of Busch, with Stewart calling the 2004 Chase winner an asset to the team.
“You know, it was [Haas’s] choice to add Kurt to the organization, not me,” Stewart said. “I really truly was 100 percent behind it. I was just concerned about the time frame. The rest of it about everybody’s perception that we’re fighting and arguing, there was never one argument between us.”
Busch put himself in the mix to qualify for the Chase with a fourth-place finish at Atlanta that moved him to 10th in the Sprint Cup standings. Busch’s younger brother Kyle, who won at Atlanta, is among the seven drivers guaranteed a spot in the Chase.
Martin, meanwhile, has much to consider with regard to his career plans. The winner of 40 Sprint Cup events is 54 and has not revealed whether he will race again next year, although joining Stewart-Haas Racing expanded his schedule to the busiest it has been since he last drove full-time in 2011 with Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’ve had great times,” Martin said. “I’m just really grateful for all the time that I’ve had in NASCAR racing and all of racing.”
Notes: Jeff Gordon, in 11th place in the points standings, captured the pole with a track-record qualifying lap of 130.599 mph. . . .
Brad Keselowski took the lead on a restart with 11 laps left and won the Nationwide Series race.