Stewart-Haas Racing on Friday named Brian Vickers to drive its No. 14 car for the duration of Daytona 500 Speedweeks, temporarily replacing Tony Stewart, who suffered a serious back injury last month.
Vickers will race in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, and the following week's season-opening Daytona 500. SHR president Brett Frood would not state whether Vickers will drive the car past Daytona, calling the situation "fluid."
Stewart suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebrate sustained Jan. 31 in a dune buggy accident while driving in the desert along the California-Arizona border. He underwent surgery three days following the accident and is sidelined for an indefinite period of time in what is his final season before retirement. Stewart announced last September he would stop competing in NASCAR following the 2016 season, choosing to concentrate on racing sprint cars.
Vickers is a three-time premier series race-winner and twice a Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff qualifier, but has battled health issues in recent years that have caused him to miss races. He only competed twice last season after dealing with a recurrence of blood clots, which also caused him to miss events in 2010 (blood clots in his leg and lungs) and 2013 (blood clot in his right calf).
NASCAR medically cleared Vickers to drive Thursday.
"This is pretty special," Vickers said. "I wasn't sure if I was ever going to be in the Daytona 500 again.
"I've been living my life and waiting for the right opportunity. I told myself if I was going to come back to racing, particularly in the Sprint Cup Series, I wanted to be in a car I was confident could win."
It was Vickers' ability to win that prompted SHR to sign him for the duration of Speedweeks. The 32-year-old's first career victory was at Talladega Superspeedway, a sister track to Daytona, the only NASCAR venues where restrictor-plates are used to decrease speeds. Vickers' other wins occurred at Michigan International Speedway (2009) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2013).
During the SHR press conference introducing Vickers, Stewart took to the social media app Periscope to update his condition. While walking on a treadmill, he said he's "been through a lot worse than this," presumably referencing previous injuries that include a broken back incurred racing Indy cars and a 2013 sprint car accident that broke his right leg in two places.
"We are doing much better," Stewart said. "We're starting to get the pain under control. Just didn't want everybody to think while everybody was in Daytona today that I was sitting on my ass here in Charlotte."
Frood said Stewart has no additional surgeries scheduled, but Stewart said during his Periscope session that he will likely have surgery at the end of the year. Neither Frood nor Stewart set a timetable for a possible return.
"Obviously, Tony had an impactful injury," Frood said. "We're taking it day by day. ... It's up to the doctors and how quickly the bones heal."