It isn't customary for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to wake up early, but for whatever reason he was awake around 5 a.m. Tuesday. That's when he heard the news that Tony Stewart had broken his leg in a sprint car accident Monday night in Iowa.
The news made NASCAR's most popular driver sick to his stomach.
"I just couldn't believe it," Earnhardt said Friday at Watkins Glen. "I felt like I must have been dreaming ... I hated it for him just knowing what being out of the car is like and knowing how much he loves what he does and how much he enjoys driving no matter what it is."
But Earnhardt doesn't fault Stewart for getting hurt racing a sprint car, even if the injury effectively ends his season and eliminates any chance he had of winning a fourth Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt knows how much joy Stewart gets from running what Jeff Gordon describes as a "rocket ship on wheels" and that finding small dirt track somewhere in rural America is his way of escaping the pressures of being a NASCAR owner, driver and track owner.
This was the common viewpoint expressed Friday, as driver after driver commented on Stewart's love of sprint car racing and how that has come to identify who he is.
"He's a blue-collar racer's racer," Earnhardt said. "He can get down on the ground level and he might be the owner of the Cup team and owner of a race track, championship driver, but he can get down in the dirt and get his hands dirty and get behind the wheel of a sprint car and win anywhere in the country on any night.
"I think that's part of the appeal with him is that he's that kind of guy that can do that."
Prior to Monday, Stewart had been involved in two sprint car accidents within the last few weeks. In the first, a 19-year-old female driver fractured her back when she rolled end-over-end. And in the second incident it was Stewart who tumbled, flipping five times while challenging for the lead at a Canadian dirt track.
These mishaps led to questions about whether Stewart should jeopardize his health and the well-being of his NASCAR team by racing sprint cars. He dismissed the talk as "annoying" and called flipping in a sprint car "no big deal" and something that happens regularly.
And now sidelined with a broken leg, those questions have again risen.
"It's troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles," Jimmie Johnson said. "We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles.
"And then you look at the race tracks that he owns and his involvement with. The guy has done so much for our sport and of course we don't want to see him injured, but I've been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it."
Stewart is expected to miss at least three races and likely more. The typical recovery time for someone who breaks their tibia and fibula is six to eight weeks. But like many drivers, Earnhardt expects Stewart to want to return far sooner than doctors would allow.
This weekend will mark the first time he has missed a Cup race since joining NASCAR's top division in 1999, a span of 521 consecutive starts. But despite the discomfort and pain, Stewart is managing.
"He's in typical Tony spirits," Danica Patrick said. "He's hassling the nurses and everything you could imagine Tony is. He has pretty good spirits, but it's one of those things, it happens."