The news Tony Stewart is out indefinitely with a burst fracture in his back places Stewart-Haas Racing in the familiar position of needing to find a replacement driver for the No. 14 car normally occupied by the three-time NASCAR champion.
Stewart suffered the injury in an all-terrain vehicle accident last Sunday and the severity makes it likely he will be sidelined for some time. The Sprint Cup Series opens its season with the Daytona 500 Feb. 21 at Daytona International Speedway.
This marks the third occurrence where SHR, co-owned by Stewart, finds itself in such a predicament with Stewart missing 15 races in 2013 and a trio of events the subsequent season. Previously when Stewart was out, SHR tabbed an assortment of drivers with Max Papis, Mark Martin, Austin Dillon, Regan Smith and Jeff Burton all filling in.
Except the substitutes used in past years aren't options this go-round, as Papis' specialty is road courses not ovals, Martin and Burton are retired -- both of whom who took to Twitter to reaffirm they are not interested in making a comeback -- while Dillon and Smith have full-time rides with other Sprint Cup organizations.
"@markmartin: I don't drive race cars anymore." What he said!— Jeff Burton (@JeffBurton) February 4, 2016
So what will SHR do with the start of the season just two weeks away? Here are some viable candidates to replace Stewart:
With Bowyer already slated to replace the retiring Stewart after the season, it makes the most sense to move the succession plan up a year. What complicates matters is Bowyer having secured a seat with HScott Motorsports and sponsorship already having been procured with the premise Bowyer would be driving. Although conceivable that SHR finagles Bowyer away from HScott, it's more likely the team looks elsewhere.
Of the available options Vickers possesses the best résumé, owning three premier division victories and twice earning a Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff berth. What's unclear is whether the 32-year-old would receive medical clearance, as a reoccurrence of blood clots forced him out action last season.
Two factors working in Dillon's favor: 1) Older brother Austin has experience as a Stewart proxy; 2) an existing relationship with Bass Pro Shops, which sponsors Dillon in the Xfinity Series in addition to the No. 14 SHR car in several races.
Surprisingly jettisoned by Tommy Baldwin Racing last month, Bowman presents an intriguing option if SHR wants a young driver eager to impress. But though talented, the 22-year-old lacks tangible results with a best finish of 16th in 71-career Cup starts.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Coming off an underwhelming return to Cup, Hornish is a free agent and accustomed to serving as a fill-in. He got the nod when Team Penske needed a substitute for the suspended A.J. Allmendinger in 2012 and by Joe Gibbs Racing for an ill Denny Hamlin in 2014.
After two seasons in Cup Allgaier returns to Xfinity where he will drive for JR Motorsports, which like SHR, shares a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. That relationship would make it easy for Allgaier to go back-and-forth between the two series with minimal complications.
Similarly to Allgaier, Sadler is part of JRM's Xfinity lineup and has Cup experience. Unlike Allgaier, Sadler has won three career wins -- though the last came 12 years ago.