By John Kekis
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.: Jimmie Johnson can secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship this week at Watkins Glen International, and he’s not even thinking about it.
On a rainy Friday at the storied road course in upstate New York that delayed Cup practice until late afternoon, injured star Tony Stewart was foremost on everybody’s mind. Stewart broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg on Monday night in a sprint car race in Iowa, has since undergone two surgeries, and is out indefinitely.
Max Papis will drive Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet on Sunday in the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, where Stewart has a track-record five Cup wins. It will bring Stewart’s streak of 521 consecutive Cup starts to an end, and it’s his absence that gives Johnson the opportunity to be the first to lock into the Chase on points.
“It’s not the way I want to clinch, by any means, with him not being here at the racetrack. It’s a big loss for our sport,” Johnson said. “I know that Tony is feeling bad about being injured and the effect that it has on his Cup team. It’s crazy to think that he won’t be a player in the Chase.”
Stewart was leading with five laps remaining at Southern Iowa Speedway when a lapped car spun in front of him, causing Stewart to hit that car and flip several times. He was taken from the track by ambulance.
Like his fellow drivers, Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, said he didn’t like some of the comments he’s seen in the aftermath of the crash. Specifically, those who questioned Stewart for racing so much. It was his third crash in a month in the powerful open-wheel cars.
“It’s troubled me to see some people giving him a hard time about his decision to race other vehicles,” Johnson said. “We always praise him for his contributions to the motor sports world and his ability to drive and race anything. He has done so much for our sport.
“I personally praise him for all that he does for our sport, including driving sprint cars Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that he got hurt. I hate that he’s injured, but I’d be bummed if he didn’t continue to race all during the week. That’s the Smoke we know and love.”
Stewart-Haas Racing has not named an interim driver for beyond this weekend, and said no discharge date has been decided for the 42-year-old Stewart.
“It’s going to be a few weeks before we even look at that,” said Greg Zipadelli, competition director at SHR. “For now, it will be a week-to-week diagnosis on him.”
Among the names that have popped up as candidates is 21-year-old Kyle Larson, a rising star in the Nationwide Series who sits sixth in points entering today’s Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen. He might be a bit too young, though.
“He’s in a really crucial spot in his career and [it would be good] not getting fed to the wolves too soon,” Zipadelli said. “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 crews and the crew chief.
“There’s a lot of those little details that make for a good day on Sundays,” Zipadelli said. “The longer you get to work with someone, the better you get to know them, the better chance you have of having some consistent results. But I don’t know we’ll honestly be able to do that. The drivers that we’d like to put [in the seat] are all racing for a championship, and we need to be respectful of their position.”
Although Regan Smith is challenging Austin Dillon for the points lead in the Nationwide Series, Smith’s boss at JR Motorsports said he wouldn’t hesitate giving Smith the chance to drive the No. 14 if the opportunity arose.
“I’d be the first to put Regan’s name in the hat for that kind of opportunity,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I understand that we are racing for a championship. It would be a challenge. It would also give him an opportunity to showcase himself ... and get some guys maybe wanting to put him back in the car full time on this [Cup] side of the deal. That would be good for him.”
At least Smith knows what he’d face. He was forced to sub for Earnhardt in the No. 88 last October in the Chase when Earnhardt couldn’t compete because of the effects of two concussions.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for somebody,” said Smith, who grew up in Cato, N.Y., a two-hour drive north of Watkins Glen. “Last year it happened so quick there wasn’t time to think. There was nothing but a phone call.
“I certainly would be open to that. You just cross that bridge and see how things line up. I think it’s a lot of hypothetical right now. I can’t speak to any of that.”