NASCAR’s Tough Guys: Six who have battled back from injuries

After suffering a broken sternum and collarbone in this 1996 accident at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt (3) started the next weekend's Brickyard 400 before giving way to a relief driver.

One of the more laughable sports debates over the years is whether or not race-car drivers are athletes — hint: they are — but no one can debate whether NASCAR drivers are tough guys.

Wheeling a 3,300-pound race car at speeds up to 200 miles per hours means that occasionally there will be bad wrecks from which drivers must recover.

Here are six of the most famous incidents in NASCAR history:

RICHARD PETTY, DARLINGTON 1970 — In the 1970 Rebel 400, Petty hit the wall and threw the front end of his Plymouth out of alignment. About 10 laps later, he came off of Turn 4, turned hard left into the inside retaining wall and did a sickening series of flips, his left arm flailing outside the window. "His head’s beat all bloody and his eyes hurt a little bit. He’ll be alright, though," said brother Maurice Petty after The King had been examined.

RICKY RUDD, DAYTONA 1984 — Nicknamed "The Rooster," Rudd had a horrifying airborne crash off Turn 4 in the 1984 Busch Clash, the race now known as the Sprint Unlimited. Rudd suffered a concussion and a severely damaged ribcage in the crash. Seven days later, his face still gruesomely swollen, Rudd finished seventh in the Daytona 500 with his eyes duct-taped open. Literally. And a week after that, he won the next NASCAR race at Richmond. That’s a big set of cojones right there.

DARRELL WALTRIP, DAYTONA 1990 — The worst accident that Darrell Waltrip suffered in his career came during practice for the 1990 Daytona 500. During the final Happy Hour session, Terry Labonte spun out of Turn 4, triggering an 8-car pileup. Waltrip got the worst of it after being broadsided by Dave Marcis. Waltrip suffered a broke leg in the crash, requiring five hours of surgical repair. A year later in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Waltrip had a violent rollover crash, but the results were much less severe.

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DALE EARNHARDT, TALLADEGA 1996 — For competitors, nothing is more gutwrenching and emotional than getting out of your car. In 1996, Dale Earnhardt broke his sternum and collarbone in a violent crash at Talladega Superspeedway. In the following race, the Brickyard 400, he was replaced after just seven laps by Mike Skinner. After he got out of the car, Earnhardt fought back tears of frustration. At first, he waved off pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch. Then Earnhardt composed himself and told Punch, "Dadgum it, it’s hard to get out of there, Jerry. I mean, you know, it’s my life right here."

BRAD KESELOWSKI, POCONO 2011 — In August 2011 at Pocono Raceway, Keselowski did something that he’d only done twice in 73 prior attempts: Win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. And he did it with one broken ankle, one cut ankle, myriad bruises and bangs, and a right hand that was cut and blistered. Keselowski’s Penske Racing Dodge had a mechanical failure four days earlier at Road Atlanta, where he hit a concrete wall head on at 100 miles per hour. The impact broke his left ankle and left it grotesquely swollen and him bruised and sore all over his body. And yet he refused to get out of his car and somehow went out and won at Pocono, a track where the left foot is busy all race long shifting and braking. "I came here to win," he said after his improbable victory. "When you let the pain get into your head that far that you don’t believe you can win anymore, you’ll never win. And I woke up this morning feeling like we could win the race. … If you don’t feel that way, you’re never going to win at anything you do."

TONY STEWART, IOWA 2013 — Competing in a 360 sprint car race last August, Stewart crashed hard at Southern Iowa Speedway, suffering a double compound fracture of his right leg. It was Stewart’s third sprint car crash three weeks, and it ended a string of 521 consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, dating back to his rookie season. He would not get back in a race car until practice for the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona in February. It took Stewart nearly a year to get back in a sprint car, but when he finally did, he did it in style, winning his comeback race at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Mich., on July 18.