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Stewart's comeback ranks among NASCAR's best

August 05, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Stewart's comeback ranks among NASCAR's best
Examining the NASCAR drivers who have rallied from injuries

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His points standing is precarious and his status for the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is tenuous at best, but given where he was one year ago, this season has to already be considered something of a success for Tony Stewart. After suffering a compound fracture of his right leg that proved much worse than most originally thought -- and required a painful rehabilitation process that forced him out of the car for the second half of last season -- the three-time champion has returned to start every race this year.

From a performance standpoint, no question Stewart is still trying to regain his footing -- but that was also an issue a season ago, even before he crashed in a sprint car at Southern Iowa Speedway last Aug. 5. Although "Smoke" has yet to win this season and his 19th-place ranking in the points doesn't bode well for his Chase hopes, it's hard to blame all that on his injury and recovery given what we've seen from the No. 14 team since early last year.

With five races still remaining in the regular season, though -- including tracks like Watkins Glen and Atlanta, where he's traditionally been very strong -- there's still time for Stewart to make a big move and secure the playoff berth that would cap his return. Either way, given the extent of the physical damage and the length of time that he missed, Stewart's comeback has already earned a place on the list of the most impressive injury comebacks that NASCAR has ever seen. This sport has no shortage of drivers who were able to turn pain into perseverance.

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Richard Petty

Year: 1970
Injury: Dislocated shoulder
Where: Crash during race at Darlington
Comeback: Perhaps the most harrowing moment of the King's career came when he slammed into the inside wall at Darlington, resulting in a series of flips that left the No. 43 car on its roof. Spilling out the window were Petty's left arm and the red rag he often kept in his mouth, leading everyone to fear the worst. Amazingly, the worst of it was a dislocated left shoulder which forced Petty to miss the next five races -- the only time in his career he sat out due to injury -- and led to the development of the window net. Petty went on to win 14 more times that year, but finished fourth in a title race claimed by Bobby Isaac.

Ricky Rudd

Year: 1984
Injury: Concussion
Where: Crash during exhibition race at Daytona
Comeback: In one of the more harrowing accidents you'll see anywhere, Rudd's car went sideways off Turn 4, sailed into the air, and then flipped and rolled too many times to count during what is now known as the Sprint Unlimited. He spent a night in the hospital but was back at the track the next day. His eyes were so swollen he had to tape them open, but he still finished seventh in the Daytona 500. The following week at Richmond, he won.

Darrell Waltrip

Year: 1990
Injury: Broken leg
Where: Crash during practice at Daytona
Comeback: The most serious crash of Waltrip's career occurred when Terry Labonte spun to spark a pileup that sent Dave Marcis slamming into D.W.'s car. The three-time champion was hospitalized with a broken left leg, and doctors repaired the fractured femur with a metal plate measuring 18 inches long. Waltrip amazingly missed just six races, returned to finish third at Richmond, and won twice the following season. The incident and its aftermath also helped to soften a driver whose "Jaws" persona had become among the most polarizing in the sport.

Davey Allison

Year: 1992
Injury: Broken arm
Where: Crash during race at Pocono
Comeback: Allison had already weathered a hard crash en route to winning that year's all-star exhibition, which sent him to the hospital with a concussion. Four weeks later at Pocono, he made contact with Waltrip in traffic, sending his car through a series of violent flips. Allison suffered another concussion, as well as a broken right arm and wrist. The next week at Talladega he tried to use Velcro to affix his arm to the steering wheel, but still ended up turning his car over to a relief driver. He did the same the next week, but returned in full with a fifth-place result at Michigan, and won later that year in Phoenix.

Ernie Irvan

Year: 1994
Injury: Brain trauma
Where: Crash during practice at Michigan
Comeback: Perhaps the most triumphant return from injury in NASCAR history, Irvan was a serious championship contender when he lost a tire and slammed into the wall at Michigan. Originally given just a 10 percent chance of survival, Irvan recovered but missed the rest of the 1994 season and virtually all of '95. But by the following year he was back to form, and Irvan won three more times before another hard crash at Michigan forced a premature end to his career.

Bill Elliott

Year: 1996
Injury: Broken leg
Where: Crash during race at Talladega
Comeback: Elliott's car went airborne on the Talladega backstretch and nosed down into the infield grass, leaving the driver with a broken left leg. Million Dollar Bill underwent surgery the next morning in Birmingham and missed the next five races, and upon returning managed just three top-10 finishes the rest of the year. He emerged as a regular contender again the following season, but that painful 1996 campaign still came during a six-year winless skid that Elliott wouldn't snap until Homestead in 2001.

Dale Earnhardt

Year: 1996
Injury: Broken sternum
Where: Crash during race at Talladega
Comeback: It was difficult for him to breathe, and he couldn't raise his left arm. His sternum had been broken and dislocated, the bottom half sticking up about an inch beyond the site of the fracture. Dale Earnhardt had suffered the injury in a brutal crash at Talladega, and had made six laps the next week at Indianapolis before turning his car over to a relief driver. Against all medical advice, he wanted to race at Watkins Glen. With the kind of injury that last year forced then-NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett to miss two months, Earnhardt won the pole with a track-record time and finished sixth in the race.

Ricky Craven

Year: 1997
Injury: Concussion
Where: Crash during practice at Texas
Comeback: Craven's crash in Fort Worth was the most prominent in a series of hits that forced the driver to miss two races in the 1997 campaign. The real aftereffects of his head injury didn't manifest themselves until the following season, when Craven sat out 22 starts as he battled post-concussion syndrome. Upon returning he won the pole at his home track in New Hampshire, and even though the layoff cost him his ride with Hendrick Motorsports, he still went on to claim two victories in NASCAR's top series.

Tony Stewart

Year: 2006
Injury: Broken scapula
Where: Crash during race at Charlotte
Comeback: Given what he's endured lately, this one seems far less serious -- though that surely didn't lessen the pain in 2006, when Stewart cut a tire and slammed the wall at Charlotte hard enough to fracture his right scapula. Although the injury needed six weeks to heal, Stewart started the next race at Dover before turning his car over to Ricky Rudd at the first caution, 37 laps into the event. The following week at Pocono, Stewart drove the car to a third-place finish. Three weeks later at Daytona, he was back in Victory Lane.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Year: 2012
Injury: Concussion
Where: Crash during race at Talladega
Comeback: Earnhardt was seventh in the Chase standings when he was involved in a large multicar pileup at Talladega that resulted in his second concussion that season, following a previous one suffered in an accident during a test at Kansas. The aftereffects led him to miss the next two races, at Charlotte and Kansas, and the layoff dropped him to 12th in final points. But Earnhardt scored top-10s in two of his final three starts that season, laying the groundwork for a strong 2013.

Denny Hamlin

Year: 2013
Injury: Fractured vertebra
Where: Crash during race at Auto Club Speedway
Comeback: Hamlin's feud with Joey Logano reached a fever pitch on the final lap at Fontana, when the two rivals wrecked one another going for the win. Hamlin slammed into an inside wall, and was airlifted to the hospital with a broken vertebra in his back. The injury forced him to miss all of four races and most of a fifth, which he started before turning his car over to a relief driver. Hamlin's comeback began in earnest with a runner-up finish at Darlington, and although he missed the Chase for the first time in his career, he closed the season with a victory at Homestead.

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