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 three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion returned to what he loves the most Friday at Daytona Int’l Speedway when he climbed 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 Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa on Aug. 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 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, Indiana.
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 anticipating 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 Aug. 5. 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.