Analysis: What Tony Stewart has at stake with upcoming x-rays

Tony Stewart still doesn't know when exactly he will return to racing.

Tony Stewart’s mind is a sharp as it ever was. The condition of his back, however, remains very much a mystery.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion spent 15 minutes and 54 seconds meeting the press at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he had answers to every question except the one people wanted to know most: When will Stewart be ready to race again?

"I wish I knew," said Stewart.

Next Wednesday, Stewart will go for x-rays on his ailing back, which he broke Jan. 31 in an off-road accident near the California-Arizona border. In that crash, he suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebrae, a particularly nasty injury, especially for an older athlete.

"We’re anxious to get these x-rays done, to kind of figure out where we’re at," Stewart said. "We really don’t have any clue how far this has gone since the surgery. I’m probably more eager than anybody to know what the result of this is going to be."

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In the final year of his career, Stewart has an awful lot riding on good news.

At the same time, he seemed at peace with how much or how little he might race in 2016.

"We’ll play the rest of the year out," he said. "As soon as they tell me I can be back in the car, I’m going to be wide-open, 100 percent. I’m not going to leave anything on the table each race. It’s get everything I can get. At the end of the year we got what we got. I’ll go on with the rest of it afterwards."

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Without question, Stewart has been one of the truly elite drivers of his generation. Only Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have more Cup championships than Stewart. Before coming to NASCAR, he was a champion in the Indy Racing League and a USAC Triple Crown winner.

As a team owner, he’s won two championships in an era when competition is tougher than ever.

Off the track, Stewart always has done it his way, sometimes to his detriment. He admitted Friday that his doctors didn’t want him at the track last weekend in Atlanta or this weekend here, but he showed up anyway.

"The hard part is I don’t know if being here is actually hurting me or helping me," Stewart said. "I don’t really know."

He will find out next Wednesday, and presumably he’ll share the news before long.

While Stewart and his fans will be awaiting the outcome, the driver made one very smart decision, promising not to coming back too fast.

"If we do anything too soon, we could mess it up for the rest of my life. It’s more important to let this thing heal right," Stewart said. "We’re not rushing to get back in the car. Like I said, the No. 1 priority is to give it the opportunity to heal right the first time. Once they say we’re all right to get in it, we’ll get in it. We’re not going to push that issue. We’re not going to try to do something before we’re ready. We’re going to definitely make sure it’s done right."

The above vow of patience was the most un-Stewart-like thing he could have possibly said in 15 minutes and 54 seconds. And it was also the smartest, if he sticks to it.

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