DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart is 20 pounds lighter and has a titanium rod in his surgically repaired right leg.
As far as he’s concerned, those are the only major changes since he broke two bones in his leg in an August sprint-car crash. So when the green flag drops Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway for his first race since the accident, Stewart believes it will be the same old “Smoke” behind the wheel.
If he had any doubts — and he’s insisted he doesn’t — they were alleviated by 24 smooth laps in the first of two Friday night practice sessions for the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
All told, Stewart ran 50 laps — 125 miles — around Daytona.
“There’s zero percentage of pain in the car. That was nice,” Stewart said. “I thought we would have some kind of ache or pain, but it was like putting on an old pair of shoes again.”
Stewart, who does not have a backup driver at Daytona, has not raced in more than six months. It’s an unheard of amount of time off for a driver who makes his money racing in NASCAR yet crisscrossed the country cramming 50 or more weeknight events into his year-round schedule.
So he found himself clock-watching Friday afternoon, anxious to put his firesuit back on and head into the garage for the first time this season. A notorious late-arriver to his car, Stewart showed up to the garage stall for the No. 14 Chevrolet almost 20 minutes early. He was in his seat, buckled in and helmet on, with almost 10 minutes to just sit and think about his first few laps.
“Every five minutes, I was looking at the clock. That’s a long time to be staring at the clock,” said Stewart, who joked he told new crew chief Chad Johnston not to expect to see him at the car so early moving forward. “That’s not going to be a habit.”
Fans above his garage stall cheered Stewart’s arrival, and he was greeted by a sizeable media contingent at the car. Standing quietly in front of the car was his father, Nelson, who said the scene “almost reminds me of when he ran the (Indianapolis) 500 for the first time.”
It was a mundane day of practice, but Stewart didn’t mind the attention.
“Today in the big picture was just another practice day, but obviously it was a little bigger than normal,” he admitted.
So relieved at how smooth it went, the old Stewart quickly returned as he felt the tug from nearby dirt track Volusia Speedway Park.
“If I didn’t think that Greg Zipadelli would absolutely kill me, I would probably want to go race at Volusia tonight. It felt that good,” he said. “I don’t think Zippy would be the only guy — I think the entire organization would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the front stretch just so I couldn’t go.”
Instead, walking with a slight limp, he headed inside his team hauler to “do what I always do — eat some animal crackers and have a Coke.”
Stewart’s layoff was certainly difficult, enhanced by the pain from his broken leg. He had two surgeries for the breaks, then a third to treat an infection. He was flat on his back, confined to the first-floor bedroom of his longtime business manager’s house, where he was forced to lay with his leg elevated above his heart. When there was Stewart-Haas Racing business to address, team personnel did it at his bedside.
Stewart required an ambulance to get to his doctor appointments, and when he finally was able to get out of bed, he needed a wheelchair to get around.
And when Stewart — a driver SHR vice president of competition Zipadelli referred to as “Superman” in the days after his accident — finally made an appearance at the race track, it was on a motorized scooter.
Nobody was comfortable seeing the three-time NASCAR champion so restricted. Many wondered if he’d ever be the same.
“Right off the bat, the surgeon, the therapists, they’ve all said, ‘You’re going to have 100-percent recovery,’” Stewart said. “With that, from Day 1, it took the doubt out.”
Any questions about getting back into a race car were erased, and Stewart turned his attention to his recovery. He wondered when he’d be 100 percent — doctors have told him it will take a year, and he said this week his leg is only 65-percent healed — and when the pain would subside. He asked doctors if he’d always have some sort of lingering pain, and he threw himself into a tough rehabilitation program.
As he progressed and moved closer to Friday’s practice sessions, his SHR team built a module that includes a seat, steering wheel, steering column and pedals so Stewart could sit and hold the pedal down for 20 minutes to simulate the pressure of having his foot on the throttle. New teammate Kevin Harvick ordered Stewart a special pad that hangs off the steering wheel that will prevent his knees from banging into the steering column.
Now his peers wait to see how Stewart will drive. Harvick said they attended a sponsor appearance together this week and when they left, Stewart “was like a crazed lunatic. You could see that look in his eye. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to ... race!’”
A driver who has excelled in races because of his ability to feel the car, some have wondered if the injury has taken that talent from Stewart. He doesn’t believe the broken leg has robbed him of anything.
“When you hear the quote, ‘It’s a seat-of-the-pants feel,’ you feel it in your core,” he said. “Everything that is processed through your brain is between your core as far as feeling what’s going on. Your hands and arm are feeling pressure in the steering wheel. But as far as from your legs down, you’re not really feeling that sensation. It’s more of what your brain is telling your legs to do.
“If we had to have an area to have an injury, my right leg was probably the one.”