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.
“We’re not going to need a backup driver,” boasted Stewart, who is scheduled to be in the race car for the first time Friday for 105 minutes of practice for the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
“I feel good enough that I’m confident we’re not going to have to worry about anything,” he added. “We’ve planned for anything that we think might or could go wrong, and when I say ‘go wrong,’ it’s not anything that’s going to take us out of the race car. It’s just a matter of making everything as comfortable as possible.”
Stewart has not raced in more than six months, 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.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t dismissing Stewart’s chances of making a successful return.
“Tony’s a guy that when he’s motivated, he can do anything,” Johnson said. “And his motivation and desire to get in the car is probably higher than it’s been since he was a little kid, so it could be really dangerous for all of us, you know what I mean?”
Last August, Stewart was leading with five laps remaining at Southern Iowa Speedway when a lapped car spun in front of him, causing Stewart to hit that car and flip several times.
Stewart’s time sidelined 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, 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 Greg 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.”
Denny Hamlin struggled all last season after missing five races with a fractured vertebra in his lower back. But Hamlin cited Stewart’s superior talent as reason why Stewart won’t have similar issues.