EXCLUSIVE: What happened to Tony Stewart in the sand dunes from eyewitness Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme

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Legendary drag racer Don “Snake” Prudhomme gave NBC Sports a first-hand account of Tony Stewart’s accident in the Southern California sand dunes Sunday.

Stewart and a number of current and former racers including Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, Rusty Wallace and Prudhomme were having a day of fun in the sun and sand when Stewart became separated from the group and went missing for about 90 minutes.

Here’s how Prudhomme described the incident to NBC Sports:

“We were riding these sand rails. We do that quite a bit. We were all together. What really happened is, it isn’t hard to get split off from one another. In other words, if a guy makes a left turn and you’re not watching his flags or there’s dust or something, you can make a right turn and kind of get lost.

“So, we got mixed up and (Stewart) was probably missing for an hour-and-a-half from the pack, at least. He was missing, he was not there. We figured maybe he got hooked up with one of the other guys.

“Then we were stopped and kinda gathered up and started to shoot the s— and asked, ‘Where’s Tony?’ One of the guys (on the dunes) came driving up and said, ‘Hey, one of your buddies is hurt over on the other side of the hill.’

“There was about three of us who went back on our buggies and we came upon him. He was laying there. He got out of it (the sand buggy) and was laying there in the sand on his back.”

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From left, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and Don Prudhomme before they and others including Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle hit the sand dunes this past Sunday in Southern California. (Photo courtesy Don Prudhomme)

Contrary to media reports, Prudhomme said Stewart did not roll his sand buggy. Rather, Stewart apparently caught air in a jump and landed hard.

“What happens in the dunes, there was kind of a big mound and he flew over it and came down hard on the shocks,” Prudhomme said of Stewart. “In other words, it bottomed itself out. What happened then, it drove the seat up into his ass, basically. It was like, BAM! He hit really hard, but we were running pretty fast.

“We pulled up, asked ‘How you doing, dude?’ He was on the ground and said his back’s hurt. We made sure he could move all his legs and everything, so everything was good there.”

Prudhomme said Evernham took charge of the scene. Gordon, car collector Ron Pratte and Prudhomme provided assistance.

“Ray Evernham is a real good guy, a real responsible guy,” Prudhomme said. “He’s been around situations like this before. Basically we got (Tony) into Ron’s cart and Ron drove him real slowly out of there. (Tony) was holding himself up, as if his ass was real sore.

“Ron has a place in the area, so he had his helicopter fly over and land on this pavement because he couldn’t land on the sand. Tony had his arm around my shoulder and had another arm around Ray’s shoulder and Gordon was holding him up by the belt. He was walking real slow and we got him into the helicopter and laid him in the back seat.

“Ray got in the helicopter to go to the hospital. The pilot said he was going to Palm Springs Hospital and got on the radio. Ray was the best guy for the job, so he went with Tony and looked over Tony until midnight.”

Prudhomme defended Stewart’s driving.

“(Stewart) wasn’t driving reckless or crazy or anything else,” Prudhomme said. “He just happened to hit this (sand) ramp and the way it came down, and it was a lot taller or higher up than he probably realized. And it came down and crashed. We went back to get the car he was driving after he got into the helicopter and just fired that baby up and drove it back to the ranch.

“It wasn’t like it flipped over. I’ve heard people say it flipped over. No, it didn’t flip over, it just came down so hard that it messed his back up.”

Stewart was conscious and alert throughout the entire episode, Prudhomme said.

“He was hurting, and we were all concerned about him,” Prudhomme said. “But he wasn’t like knocked out or anything like that. He was totally coherent, totally everything. It’s just his back was screwed up.

“None of us realized how bad it was. The next day Ron and I went over to the hospital to see him and we sat in the room and he was showing us X-rays and s— and talking. Tony’s Tony. He looked at me like he could just get up and walk out of there, but he couldn’t. But he looked great.”

When asked to describe how Stewart looked in the hospital the day after the wreck, Prudhomme borrowed a page from Stewart’s usual comedic playbook.

“He needed a shave and a bath, I know that!” Prudhomme quipped.

“(Stewart) was great. In fact, we were in the hospital and it didn’t look like he was going to have to be operated on. It was just going to be where they were going to put a support on him. He walked around with the doctor early in the morning with a walker.

“So we told him, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I’ll have to be operated on.’ But apparently when they got him back to Charlotte, these guys, whoever looked at him, felt he needed an operation.

“I just hope he’s going to be alright. He wasn’t doing anything crazy. Those things can run 110 mph pretty easy on the sand. It’s a nice piece of equipment.”

As it turned out, Stewart had traveled a couple of miles in the wrong way, Prudhomme estimated.

When asked about when Stewart was missing, Prudhomme said the three-time Sprint Cup champ was starting to worry if anyone would find him.

“It scared the s— out of us guys,” Prudhomme said. “We were saying that Tony had been missing, and then we’re told Tony’s hurt. It was a ways away from where we were at. We found the trail he was on, went over there, and I said to (Stewart), ‘Dude, how long have you been laying there?’ He said, ‘About an hour-and-a-half.”

But there was a bit of comfort for Stewart, so to speak, Prudhomme added.

“It was the most comfortable place you could lay in the soft sand with a bad back,” he quipped. “In other words, he wasn’t ready to get up. I think he was starting to doze off a little bit (while waiting to be rescued). He just rested there.

“You know Tony, he’s a tough son-of-a-bitch.”

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Upon Further Review: Did Michigan win prove virtue of patience?

Kyle Larson celebrates after  winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Winning not only meant a celebration for Kyle Larson but the end of a discussion.

For more than three months after his clean driving was not enough to beat Matt Kenseth at Dover, Larson endured questions and people second-guessing his motives, suggesting it would have been worthwhile to punt Kenseth to win and earn a Chase spot.

“We don’t have to talk about that anymore,’’ Larson said after his win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

He doesn’t, but his victory still raises an issue. Did Larson’s victory reaffirm that good things come to those who wait? Or did it show how tough it is to win a Sprint Cup race and that sometimes it is better to grab what one can?

This is about more than winning a race. It’s the chance to win a championship. Even with the team’s struggles at the beginning of the season, Larson could be crowned series champion in less than 12 weeks.

With a championship comes prestige and the possibility of enticing more sponsorship. That could help elevate Chip Ganassi Racing, which ended a 99-race winless drought Sunday, and make the two-car organization more competitive. That also could provide additional money for those working there and make additional jobs available, enhancing the team’s resources.

That’s why the debate on if Larson should have knocked Kenseth out of the lead — and taken the chance of wrecking him — at Dover to win. No driver or team operates in a vacuum.

NASCAR is physical sport. Chairman Brian France has said so. Of course, with all things there’s a limit. Still, the question that Larson raced Kenseth clean rubbed some critics wrong.

“Everybody said, Why didn’t you hit him, why didn’t you do this or that?’’ car owner Chip Ganassi said. “That’s Kyle.

“I think it’s important to understand that these guys are not robots. We want to cookie cutter them into saying, he’s this, this driver is this, this team is that, this team is that. Really, they’re all different. They’re all different personalities. I couldn’t be more proud of how he’s developed over the last couple of years in Cup.’’

Many expect Larson’s win at Michigan to be the first of many. Did his win carry a message to all drivers that there can be a reward for patience? Or is that being too naive?

OH WOE IS THEM 

In a 36-race season, problems are going to occur. Nobody is going to be perfect for every lap, every pit stop and every moment of a race.

But it is almost becoming a regular thing to see what else can happen to Martin Truex Jr. and his team, which fell inches short of winning the Daytona 500. In some cases, bad luck has befallen the team. In other cases, it has been mistakes that will need to be avoided when the playoffs begin next month.

In 19 of the 24 points races thus far this season, the team has had some sort of issue, ranging from incidents on pit road to those on the track. The team has shown when it is mistake-free, no one is going to beat them — as was the case in the Coca-Cola 600 when Truex led 392 of 400 laps.

Sunday’s race at Michigan was not clean. The left rear tire was not set when the jack dropped. The incident damaged the left rear quarter panel and created issues the rest of the race, resulting in a 20th-place finish.

That hasn’t been the only time this season that a pit stop has not gone well for the Furniture Row Racing team. Other instances include:

Pocono (Aug. 1) — Lug nut knocked off inner valve stem on pit stop while leading, caused a flat tire and contact with the wall. He finished 38th.

Kentucky (July 9) — Truex was penalized for passing the leader on pit road as he headed to his pit stall. Truex finished 10th. NASCAR later updated its rules to provide more clarity on the issue.

Pocono (June 6) — Contact with Matt DiBenedetto after Truex, who entered pit road 12th, exited his stall. Later in the race, a lug nut landed behind the wheel and sheared off the tire’s inner valve stem, causing the tire to blow after Truex was back on track. He finished 19th.

Kansas (May 7) — Had to pit from the lead because of a loose wheel. The culprit was a broken head bolt off the brake that got caught behind the right front wheel. He finished 14th.

Richmond (April 24) — Had to pit a second time after a lug nut got jammed and caused the right rear wheel to become loose. He was eighth before the sequence. He finished ninth.

Bristol (April 17) — Twice had to pit a second time because of loose wheels. He finished 14th.

Martinsville (April 3) — After running in the top 10, a loose wheel and a speeding penalty on pit road late in the race hurt his result. He finished 18th.

Las Vegas (March 6) — Loose wheel while running seventh forced Truex back to pit road. He finished 11th

Atlanta (Feb. 28) — On two separate pit stops, right front tire got hung up when being put on, costing him a total of 10 spots. He finished seventh

FIRST-TIME FUN

For the first time in NASCAR history, the winners in each of the sport’s top three national divisions scored their first series win on the same weekend.

Brett Moffitt, driving in place of Matt Tifft as he recovers from recent brain surgery, won Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Michigan for Red Horse Racing. It was Moffitt’s first NASCAR win since 2012 when he competed in the K&N Pro Series East. Moffitt was the rookie of the year last season in the Sprint Cup Series.

Michael McDowell, whose background is in road racing, won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America for Richard Childress Racing. It was McDowell’s first national series victory in 298 career starts across the Sprint Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

Kyle Larson, who has four career Xfinity and two career Truck series wins, scored his first Cup victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

PIT STOPS

— In the three points races that used the proposed 2017 rules package, Brad Keselowski had an average finish of 2.7.

Joey Logano’s 10th-place finish marked his eighth consecutive top 10 at Michigan, the longest active streak.

— In the six races that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has missed, the No. 88 car has finished an average of 20.2. Jeff Gordon will drive the car this weekend in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Jamie McMurray scored his third consecutive eighth-place finish Sunday.

Carl Edwards finished seventh, marking the first time in the last six races he’s been the highest-finishing Toyota.

— Kyle Larson’s win marked the seventh consecutive Sprint Cup race with a different winner, the longest streak of the season.

Preliminary Xfinity entry list for VFW Sports Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington

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Thirty-six cars are entered for Saturday’s VFW Sports Clips Help a Hero 200 Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

All seats are filled at this point.

Among Sprint Cup drivers entered for this race are Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Michigan winner Kyle Larson.

This will be the 56th time the Xfinity Series will race at the egg-shaped oval in South Carolina.

Hamlin is the defending winner and has won four Xfinity races overall there (2006, 2007, 2010 and 2015).

Here’s the preliminary entry list released by NASCAR on Monday (changes are still possible later in the week):

Darlington Xfinity entry list

Preliminary Sprint Cup entry list for Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington

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Forty cars are entered for this weekend’s Bojangles Southern 500 Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

This will be Darlington’s second consecutive “Throwback Weekend,” where numerous Sprint Cup cars will carry paint themes primarily from the 1975-84 era.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sidelined for a seventh consecutive race due to a concussion, Jeff Gordon will return for the fifth race to drive the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Gordon was unable to race this past Sunday at Michigan due to previous commitments.

Alex Bowman filled in at MIS for the second time for Earnhardt during his absence, having previously raced at New Hampshire.

This will be the 113th time the Sprint Cup Series has raced at the unique, egg-shaped oval in South Carolina. Carl Edwards is the defending race winner from last year’s event.

Here’s the preliminary entry list:

Darlington Sprint Cup entry list

SMI announces $10 children’s tickets for 2017 Sprint Cup races

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Families attending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Speedway Motorsports Inc. facilities next season will spend less for children’s tickets for the 13 Cup races at the company’s eight racetracks.

SMI officials announced Monday a “Fans First” initiative: For every adult ticket purchased, up to two children’s (ages 12 and under) tickets will cost $10 each in select sections.

The move follows NASCAR’s announcement last week that children 12 and under will be able to attend Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races starting next season for free with a paying adult.

“Coming to the races should be about fun, not finances,” SMI President/CEO Marcus Smith said in a statement. “Now a parent can get his or her child through the gates for an entire weekend of NASCAR events – including pole night, a Camping World Truck or Xfinity Series race and a Cup Series race – for just $10. This is one of the best, if not THE best, family values in all professional sports.

“NASCAR fans have passed down their passion for motorsports from generation to generation for decades, and through this new Fans First initiative, we’ll continue that legacy by introducing young fans to the sport and engaging them for years to come.”

Here’s a list of the 13 Sprint Cup races that will be held at SMI’s tracks. Tickets for some races have already gone on sale:

March 5, 2017 — Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway
March 12, 2017 — Cobalt 400, Las Vegas Motor Speedway
April 9, 2017 — O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Texas Motor Speedway
April 23, 2017 — Food City 500, Bristol Motor Speedway
May 20, 2017 — NASCAR All-Star Race, Charlotte Motor Speedway
May 28, 2017 — Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway
June 25, 2017 — Toyota/Save Mart 350, Sonoma Raceway
July 8, 2017 — Quaker State 400, Kentucky Speedway
July 16, 2017 — New Hampshire 301, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Aug. 19, 2017 — Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway
Sept. 24, 2017 — New England 300, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Oct. 7, 2017 — Bank of America 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway
Nov. 5, 2017 — AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway

As for International Speedway Corporation’s pricing for children’s tickets, a company spokesman told NBC Sports: “ISC tracks have offered affordable youth pricing (on an individual facility basis) for years, and while we will continue to evaluate the marketplace and make adjustments as necessary, we are very comfortable our existing offers are competitive, attractive and deliver a fantastic event experience for families and kids alike.”