DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The first practice for the Sprint Unlimited is at 5 p.m. Friday, and it will mark the first time Tony
Stewart's driven a race car since breaking his leg Aug. 5 in a sprint car race.
The first lap will be another significant milestone in a recovery that, at times, seemed improbable.
It will be a time of celebration and reflection, relief and vindication.
Somewhere on the property, probably in a quiet corner - if there is such a thing at a racetrack - Eddie Jarvis will watch with an appreciation few could understand.
As Stewart's longtime business manager and friend, the first lap will take both of them a little further from the months of physical pain and emotional uncertainty.
Stewart did the hard part; he pushed through painful rehabilitation and three different surgeries. But the entire NASCAR family did their part, too, by embracing him with the kind of tender loving care that no doctor could prescribe.
Stewart bunked in with Jarvis for a month during the early stages of his rehab instead of checking into a hospital. Drivers and car owners maintained a constant vigil at the house, not allowing Stewart the kind of alone moments that makes the mind wander.
When he got better, he went home to Indiana and got a different kind of care that accelerated his recovery.
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion was never in better hands.
Six months after having his right leg rebuilt and fighting off an infection that could have pushed back his return for a year,
Stewart, whose motto since the crash has been "Smoke Will Rise," will take the next, and most important, step by getting back to full speed.
"You know, normally I'm thinking in days and weeks," Stewart said. "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 since 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."
By the time Jarvis got to Iowa the morning after the crash, Stewart already had been through one surgery. Calls from concerned drivers and car owners came every few seconds.
"Walking in that hospital room in Iowa and seeing him was the hardest thing I've ever done," Jarvis said. "I had to hold me emotions because I didn't want to worry him."
"He was trying to be strong in front of me; I was trying to be strong in front of him because I know how hard it was on him,"
Stewart said. "It probably was harder on him than it was on me. It was physically hard on me; it was emotionally hard on him.
"Eddie's an emotional wreck anyway."
Stewart put Jarvis in charge of his treatment.
That meant working with doctors and trying to keep the NASCAR family informed, especially after Stewart went through a second surgery in Charlotte.
When he woke up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sitting on the edge of the bed.
"When he was in that situation, I knew he was going to have a lot of visitors, but I wanted to go over there and make sure
that he knew I was supporting and I looked forward to him recovering. His injuries sounded rather severe," Earnhardt said.
"When your injuries are that severe, you want people around you telling you positive things, keeping your mind positive."
Rick Hendrick, who helps supply engines and technical assistance to Stewart-Haas Racing, played a big role in the recovery, too. He lined up a team of doctors and therapists in Charlotte and worked with Jarvis to make sure Stewart had the very best care.
But nothing eased the pain any more than seeing all his friends.
"My main thought was he had to have a lot of really good people around him. I knew it would be easier for people to come by
and see him if he was in Charlotte. I knew in my heart it was what he really needed. The NASCAR family needed to put their arms around him."
"It meant a lot that everybody came by," Stewart said. "It a good reminder of what you mean to other people. You get stuck in a room by yourself, you feel like you're isolated from the world. You feel like the world's going to forget about you.
"We had nine straight hours of visitors one day and the last one there asked if I was tired. I said, 'No.' It keeps my mind off of what happened. Well, it's hard to keep your mind off of it because you keep telling everyone what happened and you're showing them the pictures. It took away the pain. You forgot about the pain you're in."
Stewart got a scare when the injury got infected. He had a third surgery on Oct. 7 knowing if a titanium rod and a new round of antibiotics didn't work, his return could have been pushed back by a year.
"It was concerning," Jarvis said. "It was rock bottom."
The new medication worked and Stewart was back on schedule to be back in the car Friday.
"Once we got through the two surgeries, it was literally going home and doing what they told us to do," Stewart said. "I did only what I was supposed to do. I didn't think about what I needed to do three weeks down the road. I made sure only did what they wanted me to do.
"You almost hated to get healthy. It was a pretty nice country club I was at. I just wasn't allowed to get up and run down the halls."
While Stewart was forced to a lot of bed rest and rehabilitation, he stayed close to his race teams.
"Tony was large and in charge," Kurt Busch said. "He'd sit there in bed with monitors showing what his sprint cars were doing, what his Cup cars were doing. He stayed involved."
Another part of his preparation is learning to hold the gas pedal on the floor for nearly four hours. Driving at Daytona generally isn't physically demanding, but maintaining a position with the right foot extended was something Stewart had to work on.
His team built a special pedal with a miniature shock absorber on it so Stewart could work on his strength.
Although he easily walked around the speedway Thursday and was playful during NASCAR's preseason media day, Stewart said he still has a long way to go before he's fully healed.
"Probably about another year, [doctors] said, when the bones will be healed 100 percent," he said. "We're about 65 percent right now. So there are so many gaps in the bone. A hairline fracture didn't have far to grow the rest of the way, but when you have pieces that are missing, it's got to regenerate that bone.
"With the titanium rod in there, we have the strength we need. The actual physical healing, it's going to take a little longer."
Just seeing Stewart back in the race car is all Jarvis, and everyone else in the close-knit NASCAR family, wanted to see most.
It means there will be far more good days than bad, far more answers than questions.
And a time to finally let the emotions flow, even if it's a quiet corner of the busy racetrack where nobody else can see.