DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — If it’s going to rain at the Daytona 500, Tony Stewart jokes that he might know before anybody else.
“It’s a barometer,” he said and laughed as he talked about the titanium holding together the bones that he broke in his right leg last summer. “I could have predicted within an hour when it was going to snow in Charlotte.”
But can he predict how he will bounce back from the injury, suffered in a sprint-car crash in Iowa last August, that sidelined him for the last 15 races last season?
He can’t. But he has no doubt that he can.
“Right off the bat, the surgeon, the therapists, they’ve all said, ‘You’re going to have 100 percent recovery,’” the three-time Sprint Cup champion said. “With that, from Day One, it took that doubt out.
“Instead of having the doubt, it’s a matter of, ‘When is it going to be 100 percent? How long is the pain going to stay? Am I always going to have pain?’ — questions like that, more than doubt of being able to do what we love to do.”
After six months of recovery and rehab, Stewart has gotten himself back in his No. 14 Chevrolet, aiming to win his first Daytona 500 as the NASCAR season begins Sunday. It wouldn’t be the same without him.
“This sport is built on characters, and he’s definitely a strong character within this sport. We’re all glad to have him back,” driver Clint Bowyer said, then joked: “I hope it slowed him down. Just a couple tenths, you know? Give us a couple tenths.”
“Oh yeah. I think he’ll be fine,” driver Joey Logano said. “Tony is the only one that can answer that question, but I’ve learned over the years you don’t ever underestimate your competition, and I’m not counting him out.”
Stewart wants the competition more than anything, just to be back in the car, racing at 195 mph around the 2.5-mile track.
“You know, normally, I’m thinking in days and weeks. Now I’m thinking in hours,” he said. “I’m excited about it. It’s been a long time since Aug. 5. Normally, when we’re talking about the off-season, 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.”
Stewart just has to manage the pain. It isn’t as great as it used to be, but it has not gone away.
“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 lie 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 lying in bed.”
Stewart has looked comfortable all week getting ready for the 500. He slimmed down, has a spring in his step and is plenty busy now as the co-owner of four teams — his, Danica Patrick’s and new Stewart-Haas additions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
He doesn’t seem anxious. Just eager.
“I’m just impatient to get back in the car,” he said. “A lot of other athletes, when they come off an injury, their sports are still going on and their season is still rolling. I’ve had to sit through the end of last season and the whole off-season, so I feel like I could get in a car right now and go race.
“So there’s isn’t any anxiety as far as what’s going to happen — it’s more about being anxious to get started and get going again.”
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