On Monday, August 5 of this year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season took a drastic turn.
Just 24 hours after the series' second race of the year at Pocono Raceway, one of the sport's biggest stars had his season ended early.
Tony Stewart took part in a sprint car race in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He was leading the 30-lap feature when a lapped car in front of him lost control. With nowhere to go, Stewart hit the spinning car, and his own automobile went flying.
The result of the crash was a broken tibia and fibula in Stewart's right leg. He has been out of action since.
In the aftermath of the accident, Regan Smith, Mark Martin and Austin Dillon have all had opportunities to fill in behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet.
At the time of Stewart's crash, there were five races remaining in the Sprint Cup regular season, and Stewart was in 11th place in the standings. He had one victory and was in a position to at least claim one of the two available wild-card spots into the postseason.
The 2013 Chase marks just the second time Stewart has not been involved in the playoffs. One can only wonder how different things would be right now had his season not been cut short by injury.
With Stewart not in the championship picture, the playoffs are clearly one superstar short. The 13 drivers vying for the title are all stars in their own right, but only a handful of them have achieved the same level of success as "Smoke."
When Stewart missed the race at Watkins Glen six days after his accident, it snapped a streak of 521 consecutive races he had competed in.
Now, more than two months later, it still does not look right scrolling down the weekly entry list and Stewart's name is nowhere to be found.
The sport, and more importantly the Chase, is without one of its most significant, beloved and best competitors.
Stewart was not having his best season prior to the accident. Through 21 races, he had won just one time and posted only eight top-10 finishes. Statistically, he was on pace to have the worst season of his career.
Slow starts are not uncommon for Stewart, however. In 2011, he went winless through the regular season. He qualified for the Chase as the ninth seed. Ten weeks later, Stewart had racked up five playoff wins and ended the year with the championship trophy.
Of Stewart's 48 career victories, 19 have come at tracks that currently host a Chase race, and 17 of them have come in the final 10 weeks of the season. It is fair to assume he would have scored at least one postseason win this year.
In 90 career Chase races, Stewart has finished inside the top 10 in more than half of the events, 47 total.
There is no doubt that Stewart is one of the sport's top stars but also one of the most decorated drivers when it comes to the postseason.
Prior to 2013, Stewart had qualified for the Chase eight times in its nine-year history. That tied Jeff Gordon for second-most and trails only Jimmie Johnson, who has never missed the playoffs.
While it is impossible to know exactly how the rest of the season would have played out had Stewart not gotten injured, it is hard to imagine a scenario where he would not have at least been a contender in the Chase.
With the struggles that some of this year's playoff qualifiers have encountered in the first six races of the postseason, it appears that the championship has come down to five drivers.
Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Gordon are all separated by just 34 points with four races remaining.
Had the events of August 5 never taken place, it is more than likely that the championship would be a six-man fight, with Stewart right smack in the middle of it.
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