AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS — Tony Stewart still doesn’t know when he’ll be back in his car to begin his final NASCAR season.
And yes, the three-time Sprint Cup series champion says he’s still done after this year.
Stewart is hoping to return to his car quickly, but he’ll know more about his recovery from back surgery when he has X-rays next week. He defied his doctors’ wishes with a cross-country flight to Nevada this week, although he spent most of it flat on his back.
“I’m definitely breaking the rules,” Stewart said Friday. “But I can’t lay in bed any longer. It’s about to kill me. We did everything short of bubble-wrap me to ride out here on the plane.”
Rest is necessary to ensure a full recovery for his broken vertebra, but Stewart wanted to support his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates and employees at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend when NASCAR opens its three-race Southwest swing. Brian Vickers is driving Stewart’s No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet in Las Vegas, and Ty Dillon also will drive the car in other races.
Although he isn’t following the letter of his doctors’ instructions, Stewart also won’t return to his car until his body is ready.
“This is a different injury than the leg injury,” Stewart said, referring to his broken leg in 2013. “The leg injury was a much more severe injury, but this is a much more sensitive injury. If this doesn’t heal right, if we do something that messes it up, it could affect me the rest of my life. It’s more important to let this thing heal right. We’re not rushing to get back in the car.”
Stewart was injured in a low-speed dirt buggy accident near the California-Arizona border on Jan. 31. He had surgery to stabilize his back, but his doctors haven’t examined his progress or allowed him to begin rehabilitation.
Stewart’s injury and his truncated season led to speculation that the notoriously competitive driver wouldn’t want to go out like that. Some wondered whether he would run a limited schedule next year, perhaps competing in the Daytona 500, which he has never won.
Stewart quashed that speculation in Las Vegas, shaking his head at the suggestion of a future Sprint Cup career beyond this season — and he lamented the circumstances of his injury, which happened in a 25-foot drop off a sand dune.
“I’m not going to change the plan because I got hurt,” Stewart said. “These are the cards we were dealt. It was a weird accident that nobody ever thought would happen. … The story about how I got hurt, I can’t even make it sound cool. I got hurt driving 5 miles an hour. I wish I could tell the story of — I was jumping a 50-foot gap, running 60 miles an hour, it flipped over, caught on fire and I broke my back. That’s not what happened.”
Stewart sat at a podium to answer a few questions Friday, even though he knew sitting wasn’t good for him. He needs to be flat on his back, or he has to keep moving around.
Although he’s getting off to a late start, Stewart hopes to get a medical waiver from NASCAR that would allow him to compete for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he wins a race and manages a top-30 finish in the standings. Kyle Busch got into the Chase last year despite missing the first 11 races with a broken leg, and he ended up winning the championship.
But Busch was injured during a NASCAR event, while Stewart was on his own time.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Stewart said. “Whatever they decide, they decide, and I would like to think it’s going to be similar to what they did last year with Kyle. The biggest thing I’m worried about is just getting this to heal properly.”