When Tony Stewart went to a Palm Springs, California, hospital Sunday after injuring his back in an off-road crash, he told his attending physician, "Hey, doc, I need to be in Daytona in two weeks. Can you get me fixed up?"
That’s the word from FOX analyst and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who along with Stewart was part a group enjoying a Sunday afternoon off-road excursion when Stewart injured himself.
In an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com Friday morning, Gordon said he feels especially bad about Stewart’s sand rail accident Sunday, since it was Gordon who invited Stewart on the excursion in the first place.
Stewart suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra when the sand rail he was driving in the Glamis Dunes near the California-Arizona border landed wrong, compressing its shock absorbers. He was wearing a six-point harness and a helmet at the time of the accident.
Gordon, Stewart and a handful of other NASCAR personalities were at the dunes after attending the Barrett-Jackson Collector-Car Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Saturday. They were guests of noted car-collector Ron Pratte, a close friend of Gordon’s.
"I’ve been going out there to Barrett-Jackson and to the dunes for the last four or five years," Gordon said. "And I love it. It’s an awesome experience. Ron Pratte and I even spoke last year about, ‘Hey, do you think Tony would like this experience, or do you think we could get him out here?’
"And I was like, ‘Absolutely. I think he would love it. It would be awesome,’" said Gordon. "That’s one of the reasons I feel even more terrible about what happened, because I know the little bit of input I had in getting him there."
Gordon said the group of eight to 10 sand rails was riding in the desert, with Stewart near the rear of the line. "It was sort of like a train of trail riding, follow the leader — Tony was at the back," said Gordon. "He was in front of one gentleman, and so when he went over, the one gentleman went over the same thing and saw Tony sort of rolling up slow and the thought maybe he had an issue and he circled around and stopped with Tony. And that’s when he realized Tony had some kind of an injury."
Gordon said he did not know the name of the person he described as "the gentleman," but said the person in question was a friend of Pratte’s.
The rest of the group continued on and it wasn’t until some time later that they realized Stewart was no longer with them. Greg Biffle was leading the group and broke off to search for Stewart.
Pratte, drag racer Don Prudhomme, Ray Evernham and Gordon eventually got to Stewart, carefully loaded him onto a sand rail and then to a helicopter.
"When we got there, he was laying on his back outside the car," Gordon said. "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."
Prior to the accident, Gordon said Stewart was all smiles.
"He was excited," said Gordon. "We were having a blast. I saw a smile on his face I hadn’t seen in a while. I was really happy for him. We were all just hanging out and having a good time. We weren’t doing anything wild or crazy.
"It truly was an accident," Gordon said. "He came over this little dune and the way that the car came over it, it just nosed into the back side of it. It nosed in and then it squatted down and compressed his back and obviously, that’s where the accident happened."