The ripples from Tony Stewart's violent sprint car crash Monday night started slowly across social media from their roots at a small-time Southern Iowa dirt track. By sunrise, they had turned to full-fledged breakers crashing hard enough to permanently change the way NASCAR's 2013 season will end.
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion fractured two bones in his right leg when his winged sprint car collided with a stalled vehicle as Stewart led a dirt-track race in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The impact sent Stewart's car—numbered with a 14 just like his NASCAR ride—into a flipping frenzy that also snared the two drivers in second and third. Stewart's car came to rest on its wheels, but he had to be helped from the car and placed on a stretcher for transportation to a local hospital.
He underwent early-morning surgery and faces a second to better repair what the team is calling a "Grade 2" injury. That term is typically reserved for patients suffering an open fracture.
The crash reopened a question Stewart had so swiftly shot down just days ago during a practice day for NASCAR's latest event at Pocono Raceway: At what point does Stewart's extracurricular racing activitees interfere with his self-owned NASCAR operation that sits at the center of Stewart's business universe?
But Stewart's looming absence from NASCAR's top series—his Stewart-Haas Racing team immediately ruled him out of Sunday's road course race at Watkins Glen International Raceway and later named Max Papis as substitute—will also have substantial impact on what happens just five weeks from Sunday.
NASCAR's regular season is in its final throes and Stewart was figuring to be part of the desperate dash of drivers trying to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart finished ninth Sunday at Pocono after leading three laps and was heading toward the five-race stretch as a driver just barely on the good side of the cut-off line. He currently sits 11th in the cup series point standings.
Now, that's all going to change.
Stewart won't get any championship points Sunday at Watkins Glen because NASCAR mandates drivers start the race to earn credit. (A relief driver can finish the race.)
By missing that start alone, Stewart faces a maximum drop of seven spots to 18th in the point standings. Should Stewart miss a second start at Michigan International Speedway next week, he'll likely only drop one spot more to 19th, but he could fall as far as 22nd if some combination of Jeff Burton, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Marcos Ambrose happen to have consecutive weekends of wins or far, far above-average finishes.
The top-20 line is important if Stewart does return because it leaves the possibility of a second regular-season race win making him eligible for a Chase wild-card spot. Of course, not many people are too active immediately after a substantial leg fracture. The third race Stewart could miss sits just 18 days from his date of injury. Missing that start would likely doom any dreams of a Chase spot.
Beyond Stewart, the Chase picture will also jumble for a number of drivers. Most influenced at the moment are the drivers with the same single win in 2013 as Stewart: Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman, Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr., and Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle.
Biffle, currently 10th, is provisionally in the field on his point standing alone. But it's a tenuous position as the No. 16 is just seven points ahead of a winless Brad Keselowski, who will move past Stewart at Watkins Glen. In fact, Nos. 8-15 in the standings stands remarkably tight with a mere 37 points currently separating the seven drivers.
Truex and Newman, by virtue of Stewart missing Sunday's race, figure to move ahead of him in the wild-card order and take the current hold on the 11th and 12th of 12 available seeds in NASCAR's postseason format.
Stewart's absence will also make the road to the Chase suddenly easier for defending champion Brad Keselowski and former champion Kurt Busch. Both currently trail Stewart but have a slight edge on Truex and Newman. Should either break through for a win at Watkins Glen or otherwise, the road would grow tougher for Truex and Newman.
A second win for any of the drivers would likely be enough to guarantee a spot either outright or via wild card in the Chase. Should the likes of Jeff Gordon (now ninth—eight points ahead of 11th and without a win), Jamie McMurray (16th) or Joey Logano (17th) grab a win, the picture would only muddy.
Tony Stewart's looming absence from the Sprint Cup Series will end his streak of 521 consecutive starts. It also appears to spell the end of his bid to recover from a sluggish 2013 start with yet another berth in the title fight.
As NASCAR chugs toward its 10-race title fight finale, how that will actually affect what happens on-track and in the point standings remains to be seen.
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