Five Possible Choices to Replace Tony Stewart This Season
After suffering a broken leg Monday night, Tony Stewart has been sidelined for this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Watkins Glen. The team has not yet announced who will replace Stewart in the car nor how long he will be out. Media reports indicate the recovery time for the injury can be up to 12 weeks given the need for physical therapy. If that's true, not only have his Chase hopes disappeared but with only 15 races left in the season, Stewart's 2013 season may be virtually over as well. Should Stewart be out of action for an extended period of time, Stewart-Haas Racing will need to find a long-term replacement for the #14 car.
Video of Stewart's Crash in Iowa
A Hard Seat To Fill
It's unlikely that Max Papis, hired to fill the seat this weekend will be that long term replacement. Papis is a road course specialist and the right choice for what's on the schedule at Watkins Glen. But beyond that, the possibilities are wide open and Papis is unlikely to be the guy. Asking someone unfamiliar to the team and series to step in and be competitive is probably asking too much. It's far more likely that the team will spend the next week and a half preparing someone to step in from Michigan onward.
As the season is well past the midway point, the list of drivers available to do so is relatively small. But there are a handful of interesting choices out there and it's worth taking a look to see who might get the chance to drive Stewart's car for the foreseeable future.
For Tony Stewart Fans
Choice #1: Regan Smith
Why he makes sense: Regan Smith is the most balanced choice to replace Stewart. He has over a decade of experience in NASCAR including several full-time seasons at the Sprint Cup level. He's currently full time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, ranked second in points with two wins and 13 top ten finishes in 20 races. With the technical alliance between Hendrick (part owner of JR) and Stewart-Haas, Smith can easily slide into Stewart's spot. He's familiar with the equipment and the personnel. He can be competitive with minimal assistance from the team. The pending dissolution of Phoenix Racing, where Smith has run part time on the Cup level this year, means Smith will be readily available.
Why he isn't the right choice: Smith, while experienced, offers little to the team in terms of the future. There's a reason why he was unable to find a full time Cup ride after Furniture Row released him this past off-season. The fact that Kurt Busch is in contention for a Chase spot with essentially the same equipment speaks volumes as to Smith's ability. Regan's lone Cup victory was two years ago and he's never finished above 24th in series points. Smith is a serviceable replacement for one race but hardly someone to pin your hopes on at this point
Choice #2: A.J. Allmendinger
Why he makes sense: Allmendinger, like Smith, has experience at the Sprint Cup level. Moreover, that experience comes running for a number of different teams and manufacturers. From Red Bull's Toyota to Penske's Dodge to this year's spot duty in a Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, Allmendinger has proven adept at picking up a team's equipment. Unlike the others on this list, he's also an above-average road racer so he could step in this weekend for Stewart and begin the transition right away. Finally, his 2013 experience with Phoenix means he's already run Hendrick equipment in the Gen 6 car, something few other candidates for the job offer.
Why he isn't the right choice: Also like Smith, there's a ceiling in how good Allmendinger could be at Stewart-Haas. He's never won at the Sprint Cup level despite being in competitive equipment. His positive drug test in 2012 (according to AJ, for a banned stimulant) is also red flag for an organization looking for consistency. Would Stewart's sponsors be willing to hitch their flag, however temporarily, to a mid-level driver with a drug history? It doesn't seem likely, particularly with the number of drug-related stories in the sports world the past week.
Choice #3: Kyle Larson
Why he makes sense: Larson currently competes in the Nationwide Series for Turner-Scott Motorsports. A graduate of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program, Larson is in his first full season at the Nationwide level. He's done well to date with five top five and 12 top ten finishes over the first 20 races. His terrifying wreck to open the season at Daytona is already far into the rear-view mirror and he's proven a threat to win at a variety of different tracks finishing second at Bristol and Michigan. He's a Team Chevy driver so there are no manufacturer issues in a temporary stint with Stewart-Haas. Finally, while he's a relative unknown to Sprint Cup fans, Larson offers a clean slate for sponsors and has the potential to be a future star.
Why he isn't the right choice: Kyle Larson does not yet have the experience to be competitive at the Sprint Cup level. His Nationwide season has him visiting most of the tracks on the schedule for the first time ever. He has a bright road ahead but SHR isn't trying to build their future; they're looking to win now. That's why Stewart dumped Newman in favor of Kevin Harvick next year. With Stewart on the shelf, the team needs someone who can come in and keep the car in contention. If Stewart plans on moving to management full-time, Larson would be the ideal choice. But that doesn't seem likely any time soon.
Choice #4: Brian Vickers
Why he makes sense: Vickers is a talented driver who at one point was a Chevy driver (in the Hendrick Motorsports #25). He's already won this year, piloting a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota to victory in New Hampshire. He's had trouble finding a full time ride since Red Bull Racing went under but it's not due to a lack of talent. With 12 years of experience and six combined wins at the Sprint/Nationwide level, Vickers is the right mix of talent and experience. If he's contractually available, Stewart-Haas would be crazy not to bring Vickers into the fold for the remainder of the year.
Why he isn't the right choice: That's the key question; is Vickers contractually available? He's run a partial schedule at MWR, splitting time with Mark Martin in the #55. Martin will be gone next year and Waltrip has already indicated he wants Vickers in the car full-time next season. Moving over the SHR (and Chevy) for a handful of races might well cost him the chance at a full time ride in 2014. If not for the contractual and manufacturer issues, Vickers would be the ideal candidate. In reality, those issues may prove too much to overcome.
Choice #5: Darrell Wallace Jr.
Why he makes sense: Wallace is currently competing full time in the Camping World Truck Series for the first time. In 11 races he has one pole start, one top five and seven top ten finishes. Another product of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program, Wallace has had success at each step on his racing career ladder to date. Given his lack of experience at the Cup level, he would face minimal expectations on the track. But he'd likely be a huge hit with Stewart's sponsors, addressing several key demographics while still being an open canvas to work with. Wallace also has an entertaining Twitter personae and is someone that SHR can groom towards a future full-time Cup ride. He's no younger than Kyle Busch or Joey Logano were when they stepped up to the Cup series. Why not find out right now what he has?
Why he isn't the right choice: Thanks to the signing of Danica Patrick and pending release of Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing already faces enormous criticism for placing style over substance. They don't need good PR right now, they need someone who can turn in quality results on the track. Like Larson, Wallace has talent but he doesn't have nearly enough seat time to be competitive at NASCAR's highest level. With Newman a lame duck and Patrick a rookie, SHR needs a steady hand who already knows the ropes. What would they gain by going to the racetrack for the rest of the year with Newman and a pair of rookies?
One candidate not on this list is Hendrick Motorsports developmental driver Chase Elliott. The son of legendary NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, Chase currently competes full time in the ARCA Racing series. Racing on many of the same tracks as the NASCAR regulars, he's gained valuable stock car experience that will come in handy when he's able to race in one of NASCAR's three national touring bodies. He's also run a handful of Craftsman Truck Series races this year, never finishing lower than sixth place. While running in trucks is hardly the same as running a Cup car, Elliott has an extremely promising future and is one of NASCAR's brighter future stars. Having him run the #14 car would be an interesting test of where he's at in his career development. Unfortunately he doesn't turn 18 until late November- and as a result is not eligible to compete in a Cup series event in 2013.
A Late Addition
EDIT: As of Monday August 12th, SHR Competition Director Greg Zipadelli announced that Austin Dillon will drive the #14 car at Michigan this coming week. No announcement has yet been made beyond that race but given his previous statements about consistency, it seems likely that Dillon will remain in the car until Stewart is ready to come back. Dillon, a full time competitor at the Nationwide level, was not considered at the time of this article's original publication. The article focused on drivers currently driving for Chevy without a guaranteed Sprint Cup ride in 2014. Since Dillon will be a part of RCR's plans for 2014, he was eliminated from consideration at the time. The fact that SHR reached outside of that box speaks very highly as to their evaluation of his talent level. More on Dillon's choice in today's Another Left Turn, linked below.
Another Left Turn for 8/12/2013
- Austin Dillon's Time Is Now
Stepping in for Tony Stewart might be speeding up Dillon's career but he's earned this chance with Stewart-Haas Racing