As Sprint Cup cars roar to life next weekend at Daytona International Speedway, the most pressing question of Speedweeks suddenly is who will drive Tony Stewart’s car?
The three-time series champion will miss the Daytona 500 with a fractured back, leaving Stewart-Haas Racing scrambling Thursday for the third time in four seasons to find a substitute driver for No. 14 Chevrolet.
Stewart missed 18 races from 2013-14 with Mark Martin, Austin Dillon, Regan Smith and Jeff Burton taking turns as replacements.
Dillon now has a full-time ride at Richard Childress Racing, Martin and Burton are retired, and Smith recently signed a full-time contract with Tommy Baldwin Racing.
So it’s likely there will be a new face behind the wheel at SHR for an indefinite period as Stewart recovers from back surgery Wednesday. SHR said he will make a full recovery but hasn’t determined the timeframe.
Who will be in the car in the interim? Here’s a list of a candidates:
Clint Bowyer: This would seem the most logical choice with Bowyer already slated to drive the No. 14 in 2017 after Stewart retires from NASCAR. But it could require much contractual heavy lifting in working out how Bowyer’s No. 15 at HScott Motorsports would be handled.
Bowyer brought 5-hour Energy sponsorship to the car for 24 races, and it also picked up Visine for three races this week. Both sponsors might want to be keep Bowyer in the car or be given assurances that he would return to the car in 2016.
But if SHR is worried about whether Stewart would miss the bulk of the season, it might make sense to bring Bowyer over regardless of whether he could be returned for the balance of 2016 to HScott Motorsports, which always was a one-year stopgap solution to signing Bowyer a year ahead of time.
If Bowyer has to run only a partial season in Stewart’s car, it still might be preferable to a full season at HScott. His odds of performing well or winning would be much better in the SHR car, and it would give him a chance to adapt to crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who is making his debut with Stewart this year and staying on to work with Bowyer.
A possible way that SHR could sell the concept to HScott: A win in the regular season ties a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth to that driver, regardless of the car. So if Bowyer won in an SHR car and then returned to HScott before the Chase, he conceivably could race in the playoffs under the HScott Motorsports banner – an appealing proposition for a smaller team that could use the exposure.
Another possible compromise: If 5-hour Energy, which has strong ties to Bowyer, wanted to keep its driver for its premier races (such as Daytona), Bowyer could shuttle between the rides at SHR and HScott with both teams using other fill-ins.
Ty Dillon: The full-time Xfinity driver has Sprint Cup aspirations and experience. He also has sponsorship ties at Richard Childress Racing to Bass Pro Shops, which will be on Stewart’s Chevy a few times this season.
When Stewart broke his right leg and missed the final 15 races of 2013, SHR used Dillon’s older brother, Austin, in races at Michigan at Talladega, so the organization already has a working relationship with RCR in such situations.
Justin Allgaier: New JR Motorsports driver is in the Chevy pipeline and has 75 starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Having run the past two full seasons with HScott, he is familiar with recent setups.
Elliott Sadler: Similar credentials to Allgaier but with much more experience in Cup (435 starts). But as full-time Xfinity since 2011, Sadler is five years removed from being a regular on the top circuit.
David Gilliland: Currently has no ride in NASCAR’s premier series but is an accomplished restrictor-plate racer (three top fives, including a second at Talladega in 2013) who was among Stewart’s favorite drafting partners.
Brian Vickers: Hasn’t raced since recurring blood clots sidelined him a month into the 2015 season, but if cleared by NASCAR to return, he might be interested. Has other options, though, with other business interests and his work as an NBC Sports analyst.
Bobby Labonte: Might be a good play for Daytona. The 2000 series champion made four starts at Daytona and Talladega last year and was a solid plate racer in his day.
Sam Hornish Jr.: Without a ride after a disappointing return to Cup with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2015, the three-time Xfinity winner has experience as a fill-in driver for A.J. Allmendinger at Team Penske in 2012.
Alex Bowman: Unceremoniously and unexpectedly dumped by TBR last month, he started in 71 of 72 Sprint Cup races over the past two seasons. Also has Chevy ties through a part-time Xfinity ride at JRM.
Erik Jones: The most highly rated prospect in NASCAR will race in Cup full time someday, perhaps as early as next season. But he is under a multiyear contract to Joe Gibbs Racing, and it’s unlikely Gibbs or Toyota would approve him driving a Chevy.
David Ragan: Another restrictor-plate ace (wins at Daytona and Talladega), and he did an admirable job filling in for Kyle Busch and Vickers and Michael Waltrip Racing last season. But Ragan has committed to a long-term project of helping build BK Racing into a contender.
Regan Smith: Would have to be extricated from a TBR contract that he signed only a few weeks ago. That was an unexpected rescue after an uncertain offseason in which the Xfinity driver seemed destined to be left out in the cold. It would be hard to break that deal.
Martin: See tweet.