DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For a guy who showed up at Daytona International Speedway with a limp, a reminder of the broken right leg he suffered Aug. 5 that forced him to miss the last 15 Sprint Cup races last season, Tony Stewart seems to have taken everything in stride.
From the first time he gingerly climbed through the driver’s side window and into the tight confines of his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, to the first time he practiced, to his first race, and, yes, even his first crash in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, nothing seems to have derailed Stewart from getting back on the track in time for Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.
“I don’t know how we could be more prepared honestly than what we are right now,’’ said Stewart, who won Sprint Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 for Joe Gibbs Racing, and in 2011 for his own Stewart-Haas Racing team, a four-car stable that will also field cars for Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick, and Kurt Busch.
“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,’’ Stewart said. “But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be. 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.’’
Although questions arose about Stewart’s condition, and whether he would even return from such a ghastly injury, which required multiple operations to repair multiple fractures with a titanium rod, there seemed to be no doubt among his NASCAR colleagues.
Harvick recently glimpsed Stewart’s intensity when they shared a plane ride home from a sponsor appearance.
“He got on that plane and he was like a crazed lunatic,’’ Harvick said. “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.’ ”
Given the time he missed, though, it seemed Stewart’s intensity would be magnified.
“I know how excited I am getting in a racecar,” Harvick said. “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 been so excited to get back in a racecar that he can’t hardly stand it.’’
Stewart said he was confident he would return when he was reassured by physicians. But Stewart said the most excruciating part of his injury was not his extended absence from behind the wheel.
“The pain was the worst part of it, for sure,’’ he said. “You know, 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 a 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.’’
Stewart seemed to put on a brave face when he limped back to Daytona and was subjected to a double whammy last Saturday.
First, NASCAR officials penalized him for an unapproved engine change after his Hendrick-built engine blew up in practice, relegating him to the rear of the field for Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel, a pair of 150-mile qualifying races, and the rear of the field for Sunday’s 500.
“It’s just a motor,’’ Stewart surmised. “If it was getting ready for the race you would be a little more concerned. It’s just for qualifying. They pay the big check a week from tomorrow, not tomorrow.’’
Then, in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, Stewart was involved in a nine-car melee that whittled the field in half. His car was turned into the outside SAFER barrier, but Stewart was not injured.
“I was a little nervous about it because we were going to hit nose-first,’’ he said. “But it doesn’t feel bad at all. It doesn’t have any pain . . . So far, it feels good. I didn’t think it was going to feel that good when I hit but everything my guys have done to try and make it as comfortable as they can in the car obviously paid off.’’
If Stewart was hurting, he wasn’t letting on. After finally getting to climb back into a car following his seven-month layoff, he was feeling no pain when he tore out of the pits to take Daytona’s high-banked, 2.5-mile tri-oval.
“I think once we got the relief of knowing we weren’t hurting anywhere then it was just a joy being back out there again,’’ he said. “It didn’t feel like I had been gone seven months when we started running.’’
Stewart, though, couldn’t help but count down the final hours until his first Sprint Cup practice session was underway.
“That is a long time to be staring at the clock for an hour and a half,’’ he said. “But that is small [time] compared to the seven months.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.