Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
If things appear in a state of confusion at Tony Stewart's, well, they are.
It's been a pretty rocky month for Stewart, even before the crash, and Wednesday the doctors are expected to offer a better prognosis for his recovery from that broken leg, now pinned back together.
Regardless of what the doctors say, the rest of this season -- another 14 races, remember -- looks to be a challenge for the three-car operation....much as it's been all year.
Now Greg Zipadelli really gets to earn his pay.
As competition boss for the Stewart-Ryan Newman-Danica Patrick team, Zipadelli has been on the hot seat much of the season, a run that hasn't been great most weeks.
Zipadelli finally got to see Stewart Monday: "He's doing well. He was doing as good as he could. We did talk about plans, and he was all on board, and felt we had made good choices."
And Zipadelli said Stewart wasn't going to rush back to the seat. "We're going to do everything they say, because we want him back 100 percent.
"Sometimes you can do things sooner than you're supposed to and make your healing process longer. If the doctor says in four weeks or six weeks he can do that, then we'll probably look at those options and do what we can do."
Stewart's sprint car crash last week effectively puts him out of the playoffs. And it appears to give Newman a big leg up on rivals in his own bid for one of the two wild card slots.
Of course Jimmie Johnson has dominated the Cup tour all season, and barring a complete collapse, or some fluke, he's heavily favored to win the championship, which would be his sixth.
Matt Kenseth has been the only man consistently capable of racing with Johnson each week most of the season. But Kenseth has hit a slump, and his last two runs, at Pocono and Watkins Glen, were mediocre.
And Newman is a lame duck, still looking for a ride for 2014. Kevin Harvick is coming over from Richard Childress' to replace him.
So it's perhaps ironic, perhaps not, that Stewart and Zipadelli have picked Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, to sub for Stewart this weekend at Michigan.
Childress himself is trying to firm up his own Sprint Cup lineup for 2014, and a good run by Dillon would strengthen his credentials for a step up. Dillon leads the Nationwide standings, but that battle is tight among half a dozen men.
The goal at Michigan, Zipadelli says, is to hang in 15th to 20th "and see from there where we go." And stay out of trouble. "We need to finish the race."
Dillon, 23, has his work cut out this week: he'll be racing Nationwide at the Mid-Ohio road course, in NASCAR's first run on that track (a fill-in for the lost Montreal event), and he'll be testing there Thursday, flying to Michigan Friday, flying back to Mid-Ohio for Saturday's race, and flying back to Michigan for Sunday's 400.
Just considering the issues at Michigan alone, Dillon faces a big challenge. That track is the sport's fastest, since repaved. Tires have been an issue. Johnson was leading in June when he blew a tire in the closing laps. In fact Dillon was leading the Nationwide race at Michigan that weekend when he too had a tire go down.
Of course Nationwide isn't Cup. And Dillon, after winning both Nationwide races at Kentucky last season, is still winless this year.
Picking Dillon may seem a bit odd in some respects, considering he's only run 9 Cup races in his career. However he finished 11th in June's Cup race at the two-mile track just west of Detroit, driving a Childress car. That's his best Cup finish. And he's raced Cup twice now at Michigan.
Max Papis, the Stewart-Zipadelli pick to sub at Watkins Glen, didn't pan out that well. He started 29th and finished 15th. (Newman finished 14th; Patrick, 20th.)
Picking Papis too was something of a surprise. Yes, the list of great drivers who happen to be on the sidelines waiting for a shot is very small. Mark Martin might have been a good choice, but he's driving Toyotas, and manufacturers are so finicky these days. Robby Gordon might have been a good choice too, but maybe he's still in NASCAR's doghouse. Ron Fellows too, but he was already in a Childress car. And Boris Said has a part-time Ford deal. Hotshot newcomer Kyle Larson was at the Glen for Saturday's Nationwide race; but he's never run a Cup race.
Zipadelli said he got offers from some 50 drivers, some he said he didn't even know were drivers. "Interesting," Zipadelli says.
So, what next for Stewart-Zipadelli?
"It's going to be weekly for a little while," Zipadelli says. "We'll evaluate each race as it comes.
"We will probably know more next week (about a time table for Stewart's return). Tony has a doctor's appointment Wednesday, to go over things. At that point we'll have a lot better idea of what we're doing.
"We'd rather have (just) one or two drivers, if we can work it out. We're working on that."
"We went down through the list and saw who is available and who had track time, who was doing double duty, and was willing to try to work out a schedule that would work for both sides," Zipadelli says.
"He has a strong relationship with Bass Pro Shop, and a big part of how we go through this is making sure that our partners are happy with what we're doing as far as who we're putting in the car and who will represent their brands in the way they want it represented.
"Austin's done a great job in the past at Michigan. We felt it was a good fit for us this week.
"He runs good at Michigan; he's got a good record there. He's young, ready to rock and roll. We're ready to see what we can accomplish."
Dillon concedes this week's time table will be rough. The Nationwide race, because he's working toward the title, looks to be the main item: "We're going to win the Nationwide series. That is our main goal. We've been fighting for it all year long."
However Dillon will probably have to start Mid-Ohio at the rear of the field. "The good thing about a road course is the strategies could actually help us out.
"We'll have a plan.
"Michigan, I have a lot of laps there and confidence.
"Road courses have been not our strong suit, but we're getting better.
"I really think it's going to be a wild race. It's a tight course."
When a star like Stewart is suddenly sidelined, things don't always go smoothly. Last week, at first, Zipadelli said he didn't like the Mid-Ohio/Michigan weekend scheduling layout, when it came to looking for a driver.
Now Zipadelli says he's making the best of a difficult situation. First, Dillon will be in Stewart's car all Friday at Michigan. And Dillon did test Mid-Ohio earlier this summer, and Nationwide drivers get a full Thursday too of pre-race testing
"He's going to get a full test day (at Mid-Ohio) with a ton of tires and a lot of time on the track Thursday," Zipadelli says. "We're going to get all day Friday, no interruptions on our side.
"I didn't think that was an option last week."
Dillon, who has run seven Cup races this season (Daytona, Las Vegas, Texas, Dover, Michigan, Kentucky, and Indianapolis), is still eligible to run for Cup rookie of the year next season, regardless of how many Cup events he races in this season, because NASCAR has changed that seven-race limit.