DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — 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 tonight at Daytona International Speedway for his first race since the accident, Stewart believes it will be the same old “Smoke” behind the wheel.
If he had any doubts – and he’s insisted he doesn’t – they were alleviated by 24 smooth laps in the first of two Friday night practice sessions for the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
All told, Stewart ran 50 laps around Daytona.
“There’s zero percentage of pain in the car. That was nice,” Stewart said. “I thought we would have some kind of ache or pain, but it was like putting on an old pair of shoes again.”
Stewart, who does not have a backup driver at Daytona, has not raced in more than six months. It’s an unheard of amount of time off for a driver who makes his money racing in NASCAR.
So he found himself clock-watching Friday afternoon, anxious to put his firesuit back on and head into the garage for the first time this season. A notorious late-arriver to his car, Stewart showed up to the garage stall for the No. 14 Chevrolet almost 20 minutes early. He was in his seat, buckled in and helmet on, with almost 10 minutes to just sit and think about his first few laps.
“Every five minutes, I was looking at the clock. That’s a long time to be staring at the clock,” said Stewart, who joked he told new crew chief Chad Johnston not to expect to see him at the car so early moving forward. “That’s not going to be a habit.”
Fans above his garage stall cheered Stewart’s arrival. Standing quietly in front of the car was his father, Nelson, who said the scene “almost reminds me of when he ran the (Indianapolis) 500 for the first time.”
It was a mundane day of practice, but Stewart didn’t mind the attention.
“Today in the big picture was just another practice day, but obviously it was a little bigger than normal,” he admitted.
So relieved at how smooth it went, the old Stewart quickly returned as he felt the tug from nearby dirt track Volusia Speedway Park.
“If I didn’t think that Greg Zipadelli would absolutely kill me, I would probably want to go race at Volusia tonight. It felt that good,” he said. “I don’t think Zippy would be the only guy – I think the entire organization would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the front stretch just so I couldn’t go.”
Instead, walking with a slight limp, he headed inside his team hauler to “do what I always do – eat some animal crackers and have a Coke.”
Stewart’s layoff 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’s house, where he was forced to lay with his leg elevated above his heart.
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.
Now his peers wait to see how Stewart will drive. New teammate Kevin 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.”