Stewart, 44, who wrecked his ATV on Sunday while vacationing on the West Coast, sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in his back. He was able to move all extremities, according to initial reports. A Thursday afternoon update provided greater detail into the specifics of Stewart's condition as well as his immediate future.
According to a Stewart-Haas Racing statement, he was flown to North Carolina on Tuesday and underwent surgery on Wednesday. "The subsequent recovery period means Stewart will miss the beginning of the Sprint Cup season," the statement read. "A timetable for Stewart's return has not been determined, but he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the No. 14 Chevrolet in 2016." The team did not announce a replacement driver.
Here is the full statement:
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) February 4, 2016
Stewart has never won the Daytona 500 in 17 tries (the fourth-most starts of any driver without a 500 win), and had previously announced plans to retire at the end of this season. Those plans, obviously, remain in flux. If he doesn't race in the 500 again, he would retire as the only driver to have won three or more championships without also claiming a Daytona 500.
Clint Bowyer is slated to take over as driver of the No. 14 in 2017.
Smoke's title hopes this season aren't lost, however, even if the thought of a fourth championship seems like a big stretch at the moment.
2015 Cup winner Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season after he was injured in an Xfinity Series crash at Daytona. He came back to win five races in the regular season to qualify for the Chase and won the season's final race to win the title over Kevin Harvick.
Stewart can certainly look to Busch for inspiration, but he'll also need an uptick in performance in 2016. Last season was the worst of the three-time series champion's career. He had just three top-10 finishes and wasn't a threat to win anywhere as he struggled with the series' rule changes that reduced the cars' horsepower. The 2016 season will feature a lower downforce package with reduced spoilers, among other changes. The lack of downforce should play into Stewart's strengths, provided he's fully healed from his injury.
Since winning his third championship in 2011, Stewart's performance has been on a steady decline. He missed the final 15 races of 2013 after he suffered a broken leg in a sprint car accident and three races in 2014 after he was involved in a fatal dirt track accident in upstate New York. A range of drivers, including Austin Dillon, Mark Martin, Regan Smith, Max Papis and Jeff Burton have strapped into the No. 14 during Stewart's absences the last three seasons.