Aside from a minor arm injury in the 2006 Chili Bowl, and a banged up shoulder that required a relief driver in a NASCAR race later that same season, Tony Stewart has walked away unscathed from many harrowing wrecks.
It was something everyone around him had seemingly taken for granted until Monday night, when the three-time NASCAR champion broke his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa.
"He’s run so many of these races and flipped in those things, I think me and him and everybody around us didn’t think Superman could get hurt; this is his day," Greg Zipadelli, his longtime crew chief and the current competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing, said Wednesday.
Zipadelli has never been the biggest fan of Stewart’s extracurricular racing and was his crew chief both times Stewart ran the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 double on the same day. But he’s understood Stewart’s passion to drive anything at any time, and doesn’t try to interfere.
And for 15 years, 521 races, 48 wins and three NASCAR championships, none of Stewart’s extra activities interfered. But now the star of the organization is in an Iowa hospital, recovering from surgery to stabilize and clean a Grade 2 break to his tibia and fibula in his right leg, and awaiting a second surgery that will give the team a better indication of what his recovery time will be and what the organization will need to do for the coming weeks.
For now, all Zipadelli knows for sure is that road course ace Max Papis will drive the No. 14 Chevrolet this weekend at Watkins Glen, where Stewart is a five-time winner, and that they’ll need to find another replacement driver for at least the next few weeks.
But what the future holds for the organization, for how much extra racing Stewart does in the future, all of that is for later conversations. Stewart was scheduled to race more than 100 times this year.
"We all know Tony loves to do those races. We know that that’s his golf game, that’s his hunting, his fishing, all the things that the rest of us do," Zipadelli said. "You know, there is a difference in the amount of responsibility we have and obligations to other people, and that’s where I think that’s kind of where it gets sticky.
"I think it makes him better at what he does here, but it obviously leaves the door open for a situation that we’re in now. I think that as many races as he’s run in the past, we’re probably lucky that this is the first time we’re dealing with this, to be perfectly honest with you. We’ll do our best at Stewart-Haas to put pieces together and sit down and evaluate it. That doesn’t mean anything other than we will talk about it, we’ll discuss it and we’ll try and do what’s best for Stewart Haas and our partners in the future."
Zipadelli and many SHR crew members were already in Atlanta on Monday night preparing for a Tuesday tire test at Atlanta Motor Speedway when they got word Stewart was injured. Stewart has always been diligent about texting Zipadelli after every single heat race or qualifying run to give him an update, the updates had become routine after all these years.
From there it became a scramble — cancel the test, get planes organized to get the team back to North Carolina and make contingency plans for Watkins Glen.
In the chaos, Zipadelli spoke by phone to a remorseful and uncomfortable Stewart.
"He was worried about what everybody thought and apologetic and feels like he’s letting everybody down here," Zipadelli said. "At the end of the day, the reason we’re all here is because of him, so I know he’ll get back in it and make it up to us."
But like the older brother and mentor he’s always been to Stewart, he didn’t let him off so easy and didn’t give him a chance to talk about getting back in a car.
"I told him to hurry up and get his butt down here because I was going to break his other leg, like some of my ancestors used to do, old school, and maybe beat him with it," Zipadelli joked.
Zipadelli’s most serious task is pulling SHR together and keeping the focus on getting Ryan Newman in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
It was just two weeks ago that Newman won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to move into position to earn a wild-card berth into the 12-driver field, and Stewart left Pocono Raceway on Sunday ranked 11th in the standings holding the first wild-card position. It had SHR in position after a poor first-half of the season to get two of its three drivers in the Chase.
Now Stewart’s chances are over, but Newman has a very real opportunity to get into the field.
"Obviously it’s a huge letdown to everybody at Stewart-Haas, knowing that we were making some great strides," Zipadelli said. "I think we’ve had some drastic improvements in the performance on the race track. I felt like we were peaking at the right time with two race cars having an opportunity. It’s a huge disappointment. But we’ll try to do our best to take that disappointment and turn it into a positive push for (Newman)."