Tony Stewart’s final season came to an abrupt halt this week before it ever began. The three-time NASCAR champion underwent back surgery on a fractured vertebra following an ATV accident over the weekend.
While Stewart does plan to return at some point this season, he will not be able to start the 2016 campaign. That leaves the door wide open for a driver to take his spot in a Stewart-Haas Racing machine — a team that has won two of the last five championships.
So who will take over that ride? Let’s take a look at some names that should be at the top of SHR’s list.
Yes, I’m well aware that Regan Smith is already signed on to drive for Tommy Baldwin Racing. I’m also aware that David Ragan was signed on with Front Row Motorsports before injuries to Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. We all know how that worked out.
Could it happen again with Smith moving to a team with superior equipment? Why not?
I feel like Regan Smith is still the go-to guy in this scenario but not sure how current contract is structured #NASCAR
— Matt Lovisa (@mattlovisa) February 4, 2016
Smith would obviously feel some obligation to honor the contract with TBR, but he’s only been with the team for less than a month. With 11 top-10 finishes and a win over a three-year span at the Sprint Cup level, Smith certainly has the pedigree for this opportunity.
After filling in for Stewart-Haas Racing for Kurt Busch last season for the first three races, Smith is always an option. The only question is: Will he bounce from TBR before the start of the season? Depending on the recovery time for Stewart, this might be Smith’s best shot at another win.
Elliott Sadler couldn’t have picked a better time to move into the JR Motorsports stable of drivers. After SHR plucked Smith to drive for the No. 41 team last year, Sadler is in a similar position with JRM in 2016.
Given the partnership between Hendrick and Stewart-Haas, Sadler seems to be the most obvious choice if the team sticks with recent trends. Oh, not to mention Rick Hendrick also happens to be the co-owner of JR Motorsports, which seems like another relevant point to note.
Sending well wishes to @TonyStewart he tuff as nails and will hopefully be in full swing soon…
— Elliott Sadler (@Elliott_Sadler) February 3, 2016
Over his career, Sadler has competed in 435 Sprint Cup races with three wins and 69 top 10s. Those numbers might not seem staggering given the volume of track time, but he has six top-10 finishes in his last 10 Daytona 500 starts and three top-five results in the race during that span.
Suffice to say, Sadler is another worthy replacement for Smoke.
Maybe being released from Tommy Baldwin Racing wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Alex Bowman is now in a situation where he could go from a single-car team last season to one of the best garages in all of NASCAR. He also has two years of full-time experience under his belt — making him a great candidate for an interim role. Bowman certainly believes so.
— Alex Bowman (@AlexBRacing) February 4, 2016
He might not have the results of either Smith or Sadler, but he has never been in the equipment SHR can provide. Two of his best results have also been at superspeedways, making him a notable fill-in for Speedweeks and the Daytona 500, at the very least.
Unlike Smith and Sadler, Bowman has never gotten his opportunity to shine with a great team. Regardless of the length that Smoke is out, this could finally be the chance Bowman needs to take his career to the next level.
He may be young, but Ty Dillon is already carving out a place for himself in the NASCAR world. After falling short last season in the Xfinity Series race, Dillon is scheduled to split time with Michael McDowell in the No. 95 car for Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing.
Could he make the jump to SHR to start the season? It certainly seems like a possibility if Richard Childress Racing will allow him to move over.
Dillon has proved he can win at other levels with four combined wins at the Xfinity and Trucks levels. The biggest drawback might be the fact that he’s only competed in seven total races at the Sprint Cup level. The results have also been mixed with just two top-20 finishes, neither of which came at superspeedways.
If the recovery window for Stewart is a short one, the likelihood of Dillon making the move seems more likely. But with little experience and plans already for the Daytona 500, Dillon probably won’t be at the top of the list.