DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A month after a surgeon rebuilt Mike Skinner's left knee, he was swinging a hammer at his house and a golf club on the driving range.
The enthusiasm to get his life - and his racing career - back to full speed often lulled him into a false sense of self-assurance.
"All right, golf wasn't a good idea," he said. "But you have to learn your threshold. That's the toughest part: knowing just how far to push. I've got to find my warning system, and when it gives me a warning, I've got to listen."
The new driver for Morgan-McClure Motorsports' Kodak Chevrolet has been pushing his new knee to the brink - and beyond - to be ready to drive in next month's Daytona 500. The road to recovery has required sessions at a local rehabilitation center before sunrise and equally intense workouts inside his racecar. Whether he's pushing weights with his leg or wrestling a steering wheel, the first race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season has been a driving force ever since the anesthesia wore off.
There is a purpose in his rigorous routine. His reputation as a driver who can win was injured as badly as his knee when he left Richard Childress Racing with nine races remaining in the season. His knee throbbed in pain after a July 15 crash at Joliet, Ill., but it paled to the frustration of not winning a race for Childress in five fulltime seasons.
Childress' new sponsor didn't want Skinner in 2002, so the former Craftsman Truck Series champion decided to accelerate the breakup in October and use the time to rebuild his body and racing spirit.
"I wasn't a very smart businessman," Skinner said of his term with Childress. "I have no regrets. I passed along some opportunities that as a businessman I should have taken. I stayed very faithful and really thought that's where I was going to retire. I got a big wake-up call. You have to take care of busisness.
" We were kind of in the shadows for a long time at RCR. A lot of things happened, but we still ended up in the shadows."
Despite Childress' stature as one of the leading car owners on the Winston Cup Series, Skinner always felt the greater emphasis was spent on teammate Dale Earnhardt and then Kevin Harvick.
After winning the Daytona 500 three times in five years during the early 1990s with Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin as drivers, Morgan-McClure also has a lot to prove. The team has only one victory since 1996, and it went through four different drivers a year ago.
"Being the main focus of the race team will help me mentally," Skinner said.
Both sides not only need each other, they hope to use each other to again earn the sport's respect.
"I don't know what it's going to take, what sort of special guidance it's going to take, what kind of people (team owner Larry McClure) is going to plug into what holes," Skinner said. "I'm going to give my input. Maybe I was a little too quiet in my last job.
"I need to go racing with them and give them the opportunity to prove themselves as a race team and me the opportunity to prove that I can fit in with them. This team has had a rough couple years. We had a rough year last year; we went through a lot of injuries. We need each other."
To do that, Skinner has worked hard during the off-season on his knee. The anterior cruciate ligament, once the deathblow to professional athlete's career, was replaced with one from a cadaver because it would help him recover more quickly, Dr. Craig Hankins said.
By Christmas, Skinner was working out and trying to resume a normal life around his Daytona Beach home. At times, the routine was too grueling.
"I went out dancing on New Year's Eve, and my knee really swelled up and started to burn," Skinner said. "When I came to rehab, they put a big ice pack on my knee, and it was so hot it melted it in about five minutes."
Randy and Sarah Thomas at Thomas Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy have supervised Skinner's recovery, including a couple trips to the raceway to see what's involved with racing 500 miles. Randy sat in the driver's seat to check it for posture and support, while Sarah has gone over the driver's compartment to check out the padding and to see how he climbs out of the car.
"His schedule's been challenging," Sarah Thomas said. "He's worked real hard. He's been real disciplined here and at home. We get on him when he pushes too hard, and when he tries to play golf."
The recent three-day test session at the Daytona International Speedway was an important hurdle for Skinner since it proved to be a necessary workout for both the driver and the team. The most-important part of his recovery, however, came two weeks earlier at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C., when the team ran 500 laps in a private test.
"I had to know in my mind I could make it," Skinner said. "That's a speedway where you're off and on the gas and off and on the brakes all day. It's real tough on the driver. I had to know if my knee was going to hold up or not.
"When you have the injuries and some of the crashes we've had, sometimes you sit back and start second-guessing. Man, do I really want to do this? Is this really what I want to do? The surgery just reassured me that this is what I want to do. Sitting back is not for me. I want to race. I've always wanted to race. I want to run up front. I want to make a difference where I go."
One step at a time. One step at a time.
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