FONTANA, Calif. -- If anyone knows United States Auto Club talent, it's Tony Stewart. He's a four-time USAC champion, and won the Triple Crown in 1995. He is indisputably one of the greatest ever in those parts.
So Sunday evening after his victory in the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway, I asked for Stewart's thoughts on Shane Hmiel's racing talent and progress as a dirt racer.
"When Shane started running Silver Crown cars and midgets I was like, 'oh man, this could be interesting,' because he'd never driven those types of cars," Stewart said. "He was never scared of it. He never backed down from it and said, 'I have to learn this.' And he's given 110 percent ever since Day 1.
"He's really turned into a great open-wheel driver."
Stewart offered his thoughts on the accident that left Hmiel in critical condition with head injuries and fractures to his neck and back. Hmiel, you may recall, received a lifetime ban from NASCAR in 2006 for violating the sport's substance-abuse policy for a third time.
As word of Hmiel's accident, which occurred during qualifying for the Silver Crown race in Terre Haute, Ind., began filtering through the NASCAR community Saturday, Stewart got on the phone. He called Irish Saunders, an old friend who works for Hoosier Tires.
Saunders was on his way to Indianapolis Methodist Hospital to visit Hmiel. Saunders' son, Eric, was paralyzed from the chest down, following a motocross training accident the day before his 18th birthday on Aug. 28.
When Stewart won Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, he dedicated the win to Eric.
Sunday, Stewart mentioned Hmiel in Victory Lane.
"That's actually part of the reason I had called Irish last night, was to check on Shane," Stewart said. "[His kind of accident] is something that doesn't happen a lot in open-wheel racing. It was just a freak accident that happened, and the way that he crashed, the way he hit the concrete wall, not too many guys hit like that. But it was a devastating hit, and obviously his injuries reflected that.
"But to get an update from those guys at Indianapolis this morning and hear how well he made it through the night, and hearing the optimistic thoughts from the doctors made us all, I think I breathed a sigh of relief today, knowing that he made it through that first night. That's a big step.
"To hear the doctors say they don't think there's going to be any paralysis with a broken neck and broken back, that's why we mentioned it in Victory Lane. Definitely our thoughts are with him right now."