Tony Stewart won't be returning to the No. 14 car anytime soon.
Stewart, who broke his leg Monday night in a sprint car crash, is still in an Iowa hospital awaiting a second surgery on his right tibia and fibula. While the time frame for his recovery won't become clearer until that surgery is complete, it's not going to happen in time for Stewart to make NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli told reporters during a Wednesday teleconference that Stewart would "absolutely" be out for at least a few weeks.
"We need the next two or three weeks lined up (with another driver), and that's what we're going to start working on this afternoon or tomorrow," Zipadelli said.
The priority, he said, is to race for owner's points. Zipadelli said it was yet to be determined whether Stewart's seat would be filled by one driver or multiple drivers after Max Papis drives the No. 14 this weekend at Watkins Glen.
"In the next 24 to 48 hours (after Stewart's second surgery), we will have a much better idea of exactly what the healing process will be and will be able to do a better job of (saying whether it is) six weeks or is it longer?" Zipadelli said. "We really do not have an answer for that right now."
In the meantime, SHR chose Papis in part due to its comfort level with the driver. Papis just tested Stewart's Glen car at Road Atlanta on July 30 and showed good communication with crew chief Steve Addington. That, coupled with Zipadelli's familiarity with the driver from when Papis helped coach Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing, helped made it a "perfect shoo-in for us," Zipadelli said.
"We just felt like it was our best bet to be able to communicate well over the weekend and get the most out of the car that we could," Zipadelli said.
Papis has made 35 career Cup starts with a best finish of eighth at Watkins Glen. He's also won seven Grand-Am races, including two at the Glen.
"Obviously I'm not going to go out there to run 20th or 25th," Papis said. "I'm going to go out there to make everyone proud and do the best job I can, and I know that my best job is pretty good. I have confidence in what I can do."
Zipadelli said he's spoken to Stewart on the phone and said the driver is in good spirits but has "a lot of pain and is trying to get comfortable.
"He was worried about what everybody thought and apologetic and feels like he's letting everybody down here," Zipadelli said. "At the end of the day, the reason we're all here is because of him, so I know he'll get back in it and make it up to us."
That brings up the topic which has been the source of much debate since news of Stewart's injury broke: Is it time for Stewart to stop racing local dirt track events?
Zipadelli said Stewart's extracurricular racing is "sticky" because of the amount of responsibility and obligations Stewart has to other people. Though sprint car racing is Stewart's version of playing golf or fishing, Zipadelli said, "it leaves the door open for a situation that we're in now.
"I think that as many races as he's run in the past, we're probably lucky that this is the first time we're dealing with this, to be perfectly honest with you," he said. "... I think me and him and everybody around us didn't think Superman could get hurt. This is his day."
Because of what's happened, Zipadelli said Stewart's hobby of racing cars outside of NASCAR -- he was scheduled to race more than 100 times this year in all -- could be the source of conversations after the driver heals.
"I think a lot of that stuff will take care of itself in time here," he said. "... What he races down the road, I think it opens up a lot of discussions, and I think it's way too early to really get in the middle of any of these details."
In the meantime, Zipadelli said he jokingly told Stewart the driver needed to hurry up and get back to North Carolina "because I was going to break his other leg -- like some of my ancestors used to do -- and maybe beat him with it."
If Stewart's sponsors feel the same way, no one is saying. Zipadelli said the sponsors have been good to work with so far -- though they're just as disappointed as the team.
Zipadelli and other SHR officials will be tasked with trying to find a replacement driver who can meet both performance standards and "represent the brand" of sponsors Mobil 1 and Bass Pro Shops.
"This is a big deal," he said. "It's going to take everybody as a team working together, and we'll get through it and hopefully do a good job and hopefully they'll all be proud of how Stewart-Haas deals with everything."
Stewart is 11th in the points standings -- in the No. 1 wild card spot for the Chase -- but his drop in points will open the door for teammate Ryan Newman (15th in points) to grab the second wild card.
In that regard, Zipadelli said little will change because the focus has always been to give Stewart, Newman and Danica Patrick "equal attention."
"I think obviously now that the 39 (Newman) is our only chance, we will do whatever we can to help," he said. "I don't know that it's any more than what we have been doing...but if there's anything they need, we will certainly do our best to give them what they need to have that opportunity.
"I felt like we were peaking at the right time with two race cars having an opportunity. It's a huge disappointment. But we'll try to do our best to take that disappointment and turn it into a positive push for the 39."
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