Source: USA TODAY
Ever since Tony Stewart – known as “Smoke” — badly broke his leg in an August sprint car crash, his fans have flooded social media with the #SmokeWillRise hashtag.
It turns out their appetite for his return goes beyond just tweeting. NASCAR will announce today that Stewart won a competition fueled by social media to appear on the cover of next year’s NASCAR ’14 video game, dominating the competition in each round of its “Drive For The Cover” contest.
Stewart, who is expected to return in time for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, beat Jeff Gordon in the final round with 69% of the vote. He had the highest vote total in all five rounds of the bracket-style competition and never had less than 64% in any matchup.
“It’s pretty humbling to me, because I don’t do a lot of social media,” Stewart told USA TODAY Sports. “… When you’re hurt and away from (racing), sometimes you can be forgotten about. That’s something I haven’t felt, because every time you go somewhere, somebody is there telling you they can’t wait for you to get back or it’s not the same (without him).”
That Stewart won wasn’t a huge surprise – Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t eligible for the contest after appearing on last year’s cover – but that he prevailed by such a large margin was notable. Even more impressive was how Stewart accomplished the feat without having a personal presence on social media (though his publicists run a Facebook page with more than 600,000 likes and a Twitter account — @StewartHaasRcng – with 150,000 followers).
“We were shocked by the dominance and without him pushing himself,” said Blake Davidson, NASCAR vice president of licensing and consumer products. “What I got out of it was the fans miss Tony Stewart. He has a very loyal fan base and they’re ready to see him back out there. This was the first opportunity looking toward next year that they were able to offer their support for Tony and (show they’re) excited to see him come back.”
Stewart said signs of encouragement from his fans – whether in person or through support like the video game cover contest – is “that little extra push of motivation you need to do your therapy.” He’s even gotten a boost through kind words from random people on the elevator at his medical appointments.
The healing on his lower right leg is still a work in progress after three surgeries – the result of a broken tibia and fibula sustained in an Aug. 5 crash while racing for fun on a small Iowa dirt track. But Stewart said he’s continuing to feel better, even more than when he sat down with USA TODAY Sports for an extended interview earlier this month.
“Everything has been good,” he said. “Actually, I feel much better than I even did a couple weeks ago. I’m very confident, even more so the last time we spoke about it, that everything is on track (for Daytona).”
Deep Silver, which took over the publishing of the game from Activision, plans to capitalize on Stewart’s cover appearance with an aggressive promotional push. Though a release date has not been set for NASCAR ’14, Deep Silver says it will be “very early in the season” (last year’s game was released toward the end of the 2012 NASCAR season).
Geoff Mulligan, Deep Silver’s chief operating officer, said the release would represent a “complete revitalization of the NASCAR gaming franchise.” The game, developed by Eutechnyx, will be available for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It will feature an extensive career mode and the ability for players to run recent races with the same conditions the real drivers faced.
“We thought if we capitalized on the existing base and grow it with new features in the product we’re going to ship this year, with continuous updates, we’ll have a much stronger offering than some of the previous releases have had,” Mulligan said. “We want to be part of everything NASCAR does. We’ll make it a game NASCAR fans can play all year long and stay current all year long.”
New crew chief for Stewart
When the NASCAR ’14 cover driver finally returns – Stewart missed the last 15 races of the NASCAR season following the crash – he’ll have a new crew chief. He replaced Steve Addington with Chad Johnston – Martin Truex Jr.’s former crew chief – after the season ended.
Stewart called it a “hard decision” and lamented the difficulty of making a change given his friendship with Addington. Johnston, who will be Stewart’s third crew chief in four years, was endorsed by Mark Martin – who had worked around him while at Michael Waltrip Racing (Martin is now a test driver for Stewart-Haas).
It also helped, Stewart said, that Johnston had a previous working relationship with new SHR crew chief Rodney Childers, who will head Kevin Harvick’s team at SHR next year.
“Just the conversations we had with each other, I just felt very comfortable with him,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of the same feeling I had when Steve Addington and I first sat down. It’s got to be somebody personality-wise you can live with and work with.
“There were a couple other great options in the mix, but something about sitting down with Chad just made me really feel confident.”
Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.