DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — These days three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart is a better weather barometer than he is a race car driver.
“Seems like if the rain comes or snow or cold comes, I know it right before it changes,” Stewart joked on Thursday during a press conference at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Stewart is still recovering from injuries suffered in a sprint car crash on Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg, forcing him to miss the remainder of the Sprint Cup season and end a streak of 521 consecutive starts.
The Indiana native isn’t ready yet to strap back into his No. 14 Chevrolet, so Mark Martin will test for Stewart during Preseason Thunder at Daytona Int’l Speedway this weekend. Stewart is on schedule to return to racing during the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona on Feb. 15.
“I feel pretty good. I still have a little ways to go, but we’ve got four weeks to get ready the rest of the way,” Stewart said. “Even when we get here in February, it’s not going to be 100 percent. Physically I’m not going to feel 100 percent, but I’ll be able to do my job 100 percent, so that’s the main thing. I don’t mind it taking a little longer for the physical side to heal, as long as I can drive a race car when I need to when I get back.”
Stewart said Martin, who drove Stewart’s No. 14 in 12 races last season after Stewart’s injury, has spent a lot of time working with the team during the offseason to prepare for the Daytona test.
“While I’m still healing up, Mark is helping out and doing the testing for us. His role is huge, obviously. I mean, when he comes to the shop, he doesn’t come around and just walk around and smile and say hi to everybody. I mean, when Mark shows up at the shop he’s got an agenda and he’s wide open when he gets there getting it done,” Stewart said. “I think there’s more that he can contribute than I even realize he can at this point, but he’s been very good about when he comes to the shop of working with all the crew chiefs and being a big asset of getting things ready for this year.”
Despite Stewart’s injury, the offseason has been a busy one. In addition to preparing for Daytona, the Stewart-Haas Racing shop has undergone a major renovation to make room for a fourth team — the No. 41 Chevrolet that will be driven by Kurt Busch.
Stewart says everything has worked out and the team is ready for the season.
“I think when all this happened it was a thrash at first to kind of figure out, OK, how are we going to do this, and I’m pretty proud of Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) and everybody at our shop,” Stewart said. “I think everybody got a plan together and they’ve been sticking to the plan.
“I think every week we for sure have three guys that can go out and win the race, and I think on the fourth driver, I think Danica has got potential to be more consistent this year. I think she’s got three teammates that are going to be behind her 100 percent.
“You know, I think we can win a lot of races. I think realistically we could get three cars in the Chase. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. I’d almost be a little disappointed if all three of these cars don’t make the Chase by the end of the year. It’s not that we’re discounting Danica, but it’s still a work in progress. She’s still learning.”