Tony Stewart’s car might race Sprint Unlimited even if driver doesn’t

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CHARLOTTE – Tony Stewart won’t be racing in the Sprint Unlimited. But will his No. 14 Chevrolet … and possibly with an “ineligible” driver behind the wheel?

Though one active and eligible driver (David Gilliland) still doesn’t have a ride for the exhibition event, NASCAR is considering whether to allow Stewart-Haas Racing to enter a replacement of its choosing for Stewart, who is sidelined indefinitely after fracturing his back in an ATV accident last month.

Stewart-Haas Racing has called a news conference for 11:30 a.m. Friday at Daytona International Speedway — where practice will begin at 5 p.m. for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited — to announce an interim driver for the three-time series champion.

An SHR spokesman told NBC Sports the team continues to prepare a car for the Sprint Unlimited even though its plans for an interim driver haven’t been finalized.

Eligibility for the Sprint Unlimited, a 70-lap exhibition race, is tied to the driver and open to pole winners, Sprint Unlimited winners, Daytona 500 pole winners and Chase drivers.

As a former Sprint Unlimited winner, Stewart’s Unlimited eligibility has been secure for weeks, and SHR has been preparing for the race with a purpose-built car, which is why NASCAR might allow unusual dispensation to stay in the 24-driver field with a driver who technically wasn’t qualified or in line for the spot.

With short-term notice, it might be difficult to line up a replacement, and some teams in recent years have elected to skip the Sprint Unlimited because of a smaller purse and the race’s propensity for large wrecks that make it difficult to justify the cost.

In addition to Stewart, there is at least one more eligible driver who won’t race Saturday: Jeff Gordon will be in the Fox booth. Casey Mears will take his slot.

The next four drivers in line as fill-in drivers are Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Sam Hornish Jr., David Ragan and Trevor Bayne.

Gilliland was hired Wednesday by Front Row Motorsports for the Daytona 500 but not the Unlimited. If Gilliland can’t find a ride for the Unlimited, Stenhouse’s No. 17 Ford is next in line, and Roush Fenway Racing has a car ready.