Stewart’s plans for last Daytona hit bump

George Diaz
Orlando Sentinel

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 anytime soon.

Stewart recently suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident. He needed surgery and is out for Feb. 21’s Daytona 500, so he’s missing his last shot to win the Great American Race.

There is no timetable for his return, although based on doctors opinions, any time earlier than May would be pushing it.

Brian Vickers is expected to replace Stewart for the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, The Associated Press has learned.

“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,” NASCAR Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. “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 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.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has scheduled a Friday news conference to discuss its plans for the No. 14 Chevrolet. A person familiar with the situation told AP on Wednesday that it will be Vickers. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team is awaiting word from NASCAR on whether Vickers is medically cleared to race.

Vickers ran only two races last season before suffering a recurrence of blood clots. He can’t compete when being treated for the clots because the blood thinners increase his risk of serious internal bleeding if he crashes.

Vickers is only expected to run at Daytona, which opens Friday ahead of the Feb. 21 season-opening Daytona 500. SHR is still looking at all of its options for beyond Daytona.

Stewart’s scenario constitutes piling on, considering all the other stuff that has gone on in his life.

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 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 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 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.

“You’re injured; you feel terrible and like you let the team down,” Waltrip said. “Then you have to watch someone else drive your car. Add to that the fact this is his final year, when all kinds of farewells probably were planned along the way, and it’s nearly an indescribable feeling.”

Stewart’s ride is officially bumpy, much like in the last three seasons.

Love those Corvettes

Some folks collect high-end die-cast models that can run for less than 100 bucks. And then there is Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick dropped nearly $4 million at the Barrett-Jackson Collector-Car Auction in Arizona recently, picking up a few things on his wish list during a two-day spending spree in Scottsdale.

His haul included the first production 2017 Acura NSX hybrid sports car ($1.2 million) and three Corvettes in sequential years with VIN No. 001 — models from 1955, ’56 and ’57 ($1.65 million).

Hendrick owns a collection of more than 200 cars at the Hendrick Motorsports complex in Concord, N.C.

“I’m a little surprised, because I spent days with him here and he’s like, ‘Aw, I’m not really looking for anything, I’m not planning on buying anything,’ ” former Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon said after the bidding was done.

“But I’ve got to say when I saw VIN No. 1, VIN No. 1, VIN No. 1 (the three Corvettes), it made me think of him. I had no idea he was going to do that. ... But I’m not surprised because he loves his Corvettes.”

Gordon throws party

Don’t fret if you’re not one of the cool kids invited to 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 the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which comes out Monday.

The event, set from the Halifax River Yacht Club in Daytona Beach, Fla., will air on Fox affiliates at 9 p.m. and will feature models Erin Heatherton and Hannah Ferguson. The broadcast also will spotlight the Daytona Rising renovation project and the coming NASCAR season.

“The Daytona 500 is such a huge event, it deserves a great party to kick the season off,” Gordon said. “Thanks to Fox and Sports Illustrated, we will have the most exclusive and entertaining party the sport has ever seen.”

Next in line ...

The lineup for the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night got shuffled with the absence of Stewart (injury) and 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 8 p.m. on Fox.

Tucker indicted

Professional racecar driver Scott Tucker was arrested Wednesday on criminal charges accusing him of living the high life on the backs of millions of desperate people who used his payday lending operation to get quick cash over the Internet.

An indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court charged him with conspiracy, collection of unlawful debts and understatement of interest rates to consumers who found themselves drowning in debt after sometimes paying Tucker and his companies 700 percent interest or more for their loans.

The indictment said Tucker and his one-time top business lawyer Timothy Muir, also arrested, exploited over 4.5 million people in the United States who were struggling to pay basic living expenses.

AP’s Jenna Fryer contributed