February 14, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
Stewart Reunites With His True Love
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – How fitting that Tony Stewart was reunited with his one true love on Valentine’s Day.
The two-time winner of the Brickyard 400 and four-time Cup champion returned to what he loves the most Friday at Daytona International Speedway, and that is being behind the wheel of his No. 14 Chevrolet Impala SS. It was the first time Stewart was able to do that since he suffered serious leg injuries in a sprint car crash at Oskaloosa, Iowa on August 5.
Stewart walked into the Daytona Club on Thursday for NASCAR Media Day and has a noticeable limp as his leg has healed to 65 percent according to doctors. It won’t be 100 percent recovered until next year. But even in his current condition, climbing through the driver’s side window on Friday evening to begin practice for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited will put a smile on his face.
For anyone that truly knows Stewart, they realize that driving a race car is the one true love for the driver from Columbus, Ind.
As he looked forward to Friday evening’s practice, Stewart was asked about his emotions.
“We'll be in a pack right away; I’m not going to have time to think about it but I'll probably be grinning after we do it,” Stewart said. “We got work to do because normally Shootout practice, everybody gets the majority of their work done that first run. The fact that guys don't bring backup cars for the Shootout, they won't practice a lot.
“We'll get right back to business right away and we'll think about it after the session is over.”
The practice on Valentine’s Day actually reminds Stewart of the anticipation a youngster feels for another holiday – Christmas Eve.
“To a certain degree it is,” Stewart said. “Normally I'm thinking in days and weeks. Now I'm thinking in hours. I'm excited about it. It's been a long time since August 5th. Normally we're talking about the off-season. It just seems like it flies by. It's been the slowest off-season I've ever had. I'm ready to get doing something again.”
Even though Stewart’s leg was badly damaged in the crash and required three surgeries to repair the broken bones, damaged tissue and an infection, the modern-day version of A.J. Foyt has no apprehensions about his return to the race car.
“The great thing is everybody at our shop, especially the guy that does the interior on our car; have worked really close together,” Stewart explained of the modifications to the cockpit. “We've tried to think of absolutely anything that could be a problem.
“The good thing is in the meantime, with all of that our therapy has been going really well, and in the last few weeks we've made huge gains. I don't know how we could be more prepared honestly than what we are right now. The perfect scenario, everything would be healed 100 percent and we wouldn't be talking about it. Bone is still about 65 percent healed right now. But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be.
“Like I say, we spent a lot of time with pedal angles and everything to make it absolutely as comfortable as we can make it. I don't know what else we can do to prepare than what we've done.”
Stewart does not have a backup driver for SpeedWeeks and is determined to be available for every practice, qualifying session and race for the Daytona 500. He expects to be back to speed quickly and put the excruciatingly long way to get back to his race car in the past.
“The time wasn't the worst part; the pain was the worst part of it, for sure,” Stewart said. “That's a level of pain I've never had before. You'd think having the ability to lay in bed, you get comfortable. I've never spent so much time laying in bed feeling uncomfortable in my life.
“I'm actually more comfortable sitting in a car than I am laying in bed at the end of the day. Sitting in the racecar the last couple weeks getting everything done, it feels even more comfortable than the street car. If we can figure out how to take the seat and pedals out of the car, lay it back 40 degrees; I could sleep like a baby for the first time in a long time.
“We're comfortable in the car. Even being in a street car, that's been the norm for the last four months. It's more comfortable sitting in a car than it is sitting in a chair or sitting in bed.
“I feel good enough that I'm confident we're not going to have to worry about anything. Like I said, we've planned for anything that we think might or could go wrong. When I say 'go wrong', it's not anything that's going to take us out of the racecar, it's just a matter of making everything as comfortable as possible.”
And one of those items designed to make the driver more comfortable is known as a “Knee Knocker.” It’s a pad that hangs off the steering column and keeps a driver’s knees from going back and forth along with a leg brace on the outside and a leg brace on the inside. The purpose is to keep a driver’s knees from hitting the steering column.
“Kevin Harvick didn't even ask me, he just went and ordered them,” Stewart said of the 2003 Brickyard winner who has joined Stewart Haas Racing this season. “He runs those knee knockers on the steering column and told me ‘You're running this.’ He didn't leave it as an option. I showed up, it was on my car. ‘You're running this.’ It shows what kind of teammates I have and what friends I have.
“Getting in and out of the car wasn't as big a drama as what I thought. That's what my initial concern was when he told me he was putting it in there. But we've been to the shop, worked on getting in and out. It's pretty fluid now.”
Stewart’s healing process is lengthy because there were so many gaps in the broken bones that have to be regenerated. He has a titanium rod in his leg to provide strength.
It also makes him a bit of a “weather forecaster” because the rod serves a weather vane.
“You're not kidding,” Stewart quipped. “When that weather came through last night, I knew it an hour before it got here. It's a barometer. I've had troubles with migraines before. I have a primary and backup system that is going to tell you what the weather is going to do. I could have predicted within an hour when it was going to snow in Charlotte.
“That's one thing that is frustrating. We came down, the weather is nice, it felt good. All of a sudden it got cold, the rain came. All of a sudden I got sore. This morning it's not as sore as it was last night, but not as good as when we got down here. It constantly goes up and down, and it's going to do that for a long time.”
After Friday night’s practice, next up for Stewart is practice for Daytona 500 qualifying on Saturday with the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. All four of the Stewart Haas Racing drivers are in the 75-lap Sprint Unlimited including 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and former IndyCar Series winner Danica Patrick, newcomers Kurt Busch and Harvick and of course, Stewart.
The preliminary race gives Stewart hopes that one of his drivers can win it, including himself.
“I still feel like we have potential,” Stewart said. “We will still go out and try to win it. If it's something in the seat or something else that's going to be a problem, it will probably show up Saturday night. It’s a 75-lap race, which is 25 laps short of halfway for the Daytona 500.
“The good thing is that gives us a week to get things sorted out. If there's something we need to change that we don't learn in practice with a problem, I mean, this is probably the best-case scenario of what you have as far as a schedule for the week, the process that we can go through to get ready for Sunday.
“I think Saturday night we'll have a lot better answers than what we have right now, obviously. But I really think because of all the running we'll get a chance to do, we have plenty of opportunity and make adjustments if we need to.”
And with NASCAR’s changes to the season-ending “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” where a victory in any of the first 26 Cup races virtually assures a driver a spot in the Chase, Stewart thinks it’s conceivable all four of his drivers could be among the 16 in the Chase.
“I'd love for that to happen,” Stewart said. “That is what the goal is every year. Especially with this format, it could happen. Danica is good on the restrictor plate tracks. She's going to get stronger on the rest of the tracks we go to.
“We definitely got that opportunity to do that. For sure I feel like we got three cars for sure that are 100% capable right now of doing it. You know, Danica is still in the learning process. She'll tell you that, too. For the small amount of time that she's been in a stock car, I think she's learned a lot.
“She can put together a day. It's just a matter of getting that right day put together.”
As a competitor, 2003 Brickyard winner Harvick understands the intensity that burns within Stewart. And after his long recovery, Harvick can see that intensity in Stewart’s eyes.
“I knew Tony was a pretty intense guy, but we went to a Jimmy John’s event and we’re coming home Monday,” Harvick recalled. “He got on that plane and he was like a crazed lunatic. You could see that look in his eye. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to… race!’ Just that look in his eye. I knew he was a pretty intense person, but I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’
“I know how excited I am getting in a race car. I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines for months and not being able to get back in the car and put all those crazy thoughts out of your head – if you’d be able to race again, what’s it feel like, is it going to hurt? Just putting all those things to rest for him is going to be great. If anything is sore or hurts, you’ll never hear about it because he’s so excited to get back in a race car that he can’t hardly stand it.”
There was never much doubt that Stewart would return to race, but his comeback was going to be difficult. That is why he turned to the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 for his inspiration.
“A.J. Foyt called me and he said, ‘Kid, you got to quit trying to be like me,’” Stewart said. “We both came out of surgery within a week of each other. I had my third surgery for the infection. He called joking around saying, ‘Hey, you got to quit trying to be like me with all these surgeries.’
“He's still A.J. He's still my buddy.”
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