The defending Nextel Cup champion, Tony Stewart, who crashed twice last weekend and sustained a fractured right shoulder blade, will be back in the driver's seat on Sunday when the series moves to Dover International Speedway.
But Stewart is not healthy enough to finish the race, and Joe Gibbs Racing signed the longtime driver Ricky Rudd on Tuesday to replace Stewart after the start. Rudd had 875 career starts and 23 victories before retiring from full-time racing after last season.
"Tony's injury is unfortunate and we are going to do everything we can to get him healed up quickly," J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said in a statement. "Tony is as tough as they come, but we aren't going to take any chances on making his situation worse.
"We're very appreciative of Ricky Rudd for being able to drive the No. 20 car at Dover. He's a proven winner who will allow us to stay in contention for the championship."
Stewart is fourth in the standings and needs to remain in the top 10 to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Championship. According to NASCAR rules, if another driver starts in the No. 20 Chevrolet, Stewart will not receive any points toward the Cup championship. But if Stewart starts and is replaced, he will earn the points.
"We've got to try to start the race for points, even if he just gets out after a few laps," Jimmy Makar, a senior vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said during a test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I feel like he should be able to do that."
Tony Eury Jr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., said his team struggled with the same issue in 2004. That was the year Earnhardt was burned on his legs when he crashed while practicing for an American Le Mans Series road-course race during an off weekend for Cup competition. Earnhardt got back into the No. 8 Chevrolet the next weekend. He was not able to finish the race, however, and was replaced by Martin Truex Jr.
Earnhardt went on to qualify for the 10-race Chase. But as Eury said, "He didn't have any business getting in that car" after the crash.
"They need to come up with something," Eury said. "It's so safety oriented around the sport that they need to do something like that to take care of a guy who gets hurt where he can just take a week off."
Eury said Stewart probably should not have started last Sunday's race. Stewart had crashed hard into the wall at Lowe's on Saturday night in the Busch race. He was taken to an area hospital, examined and released. After another crash into the wall during Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 Cup race, Stewart had X-rays taken. They revealed the fractured scapula.
"We're pretty sure he did it Saturday night, now that we've looked back at the X-rays," Makar said. Drivers have competed with similar injuries. Bobby Labonte was a teammate of Stewart's in 1999 when Labonte sustained a fractured shoulder blade during a crash while practicing at Darlington Raceway.
Labonte started the Cup race that weekend and was replaced by Matt Kenseth. Labonte never missed a start that year and finished second to Dale Jarrett in the Cup points standings.
NASCAR officials have discussed a rule that would allow drivers to take a weekend off because of injury without losing points.
"I think that'd be a hard one to govern because as driver's are, they don't like every racetrack they go to," said Robin Pemberson, NASCAR vice president for competition. "They might come down with the sniffles or something the week before they go to Bristol or Talladega or here or a road course. So I think it's something we'll always look at it, but I don't think that'll ever happen."