The jarring news of Tony Stewart’s back injury registered with double the resonance for Adam Stevens.
The crew chief for 2015 champion Kyle Busch also knows Stewart well, having worked with him from 2005-2008. Stevens became the race engineer for Stewart in the season that Stewart won his second championship and was a part of 14 wins by Stewart in the driver’s last four years at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“When I read on the Internet like everybody else (about Stewart being hurt in an all-terrain vehicle accident), I said a prayer for Tony,” Stevens told NBC Sports in a Wednesday morning interview. “Tony’s a friend of mine. We’ve won quite a few races together when he had time here at Gibbs.
“The first thing you think of is, ‘My goodness, I hope he’s not seriously injured.’ It’s one thing to miss a race or two, it’s another to have an injury that’ll be with you for the rest of your life. In the absence of information, certainly your mind is going to explore the depths of how bad it can really be.”
But Stevens’ thoughts then quickly turned to Mike Bugarewicz, the new crew chief of Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet.
Though he doesn’t know Bugarewicz as well, Stevens can relate to being a first-year crew chief in Sprint Cup and having a driver injury unexpectedly cloud a team’s future.
Stevens was in virtually the same position a year ago when Busch suffered a fractured left foot and broken right leg in an Xfinity Series crash on the eve of the Daytona 500.
Stevens at least could fall back on the experience of four seasons as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series. He empathizes with Bugarewicz, a race engineer for a decade (including the past two seasons with Kevin Harvick) who is entering his first season in the crucible as a NASCAR crew chief.
“There are a lot of things you can learn crew chiefing an (Xfinity) car for four years that you’re not going to learn as an engineer, so this is his first time up to bat, and he’s getting a curveball,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t my first time up to bat, per se. So, it’s not fun.
“He’s trying to get Tony a little better and make sure his team is the way he wants it and understand all the stuff that a crew chief has to do that a race engineer doesn’t have to do. And now he’s worried about, ‘Well, who the hell is going to drive this car? Do we have a seat for him? Can they reach the pedals?’ All the safety stuff that goes with that, too. He’s going to have to spend a lot of time on that. That’s on top of all the stuff he was already not going to get done. So that’s what really makes it rough.”
An update on the extent of Stewart’s injury isn’t expected until late Thursday afternoon. If he misses races, the smallest of silver linings might be that Stewart-Haas Racing has done it before. Stewart missed three races in 2014 and 15 races in 2013. Last season, teammate Kurt Busch was pulled from the No. 41 Chevrolet for three races after being suspended just days before the season opener at Daytona.
“They probably have seen everything you can see and jumped through every hoop they can jump through,” Stevens said. “Hopefully whatever Smoke has got going on isn’t too serious, and hopefully they can have him there or get him back real quick.”
It worked out for Stevens, who worked with Matt Crafton, David Ragan and Erik Jones over the course of 11 races before Busch returned. He won four of the first nine races in his return on the way to his first title.
Stevens said weathering the uncertainty actually is easier for the team members than the crew chief and spotter, who have to adjust to different drivers and setups.
“Regardless of who is driving the car, all the guys that work on the car are going to be doing the same job, so it’s easier for them than for you because there’s a lot of things that you do as a crew chief that are uniquely specific to your relationship with the driver,” Stevens said. “Whereas the mechanic, that’s probably not true. The bolts need to be tight regardless of who is driving it. The setup needs to be delivered correctly. What that setup needs to be and how to prepare for the weekend and what you need to watch out for from driver to driver is going to be a lot different. There’s much more burden on the crew chief and probably the spotter than the mechanics in general.”