DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Friday is Christmas Day for Tony Stewart.
Forget the sappy Valentine’s Day soundtrack. It’s not about flowers and roses and butterfly kisses.
He will be reunited with the love of his life — a stock car- as he prepares for the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night, the first event of the Speed Weeks smorgasbord.
This is a big deal. Stewart has not driven a race car since Aug. 5, 2013, when he went crash-bam-boom at a half-mile dirt oval event in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Stewart went straight from the emergency room to the pain game, dealing with the aftershock of a broken right tibia and fibula.
After three surgical procedures, he’s only about 65 percent healed. His best friend is a titanium rod that helps stabilize the fragile leg, as well as give him periodic weather updates.
“When that weather came through last night, I knew it an hour before it got here,” he said during NASCAR Media Day on Thursday afternoon. “It’s a barometer. I’ve had troubles with migraines before. I have a primary and backup system that is going to tell you what the weather is going to do. I could have predicted within an hour when it was going to snow in Charlotte.”
The forecast for Stewart’s 2014 NASCAR season is sunny skies. Perhaps, if it were anyone else than Stewart, there would be a smidge of concern that he will struggle to get his mojo back. But the polls are in and it’s unanimous:
Tony has got this.
“We are talking about Tony and the guy who can drive anything,” said driver Denny Hamlin, who dealt with his own physical struggles last year after an accident in Fontana. “The rustiness is probably going to less for him that any other driver. He can get in anything — anything — and be competitive.”
There are bound to be bumps on the road. Stewart still hurts when he tries to sleep at night. Not surprisingly, it hurts way less when Stewart has strapped into a car for fitting purposes.
New teammate Kevin Harvick even gave him a “knee knocker” to help cushion the ride. It’s a pad that hangs off the steering column that keeps the knees from bouncing around.
His team has been meticulous about readjusting the seat for optimum comfort. Heck, Stewart — who will never be considered a “workout guy” — has lost 16 pounds and is down to 182.
“It was a very effective weight loss program but I don’t recommend it for anyone,” he said.
It’s been a tough and lonely ride for Stewart on the rehab circuit, but he insists that a gremlin never tapped him on the shoulder and whispered ‘are you sure?’
Stewart has never lacked for confidence, and he’s got the three Cup titles to prove he’s one of the best drivers in the business. So why worry?
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting that theory.
“Growing up with the King [Richard Petty] he broke his neck, dislocated his ribs, dislocated his shoulder and he’d get back in the car and win races,” Kyle Petty said of his father, an iconic figure in NASCAR. “You kind of adjust. Drivers have that ability to push through pain. If the physical side doesn’t work you make mechanical side compensate for that. Tony has driven everything so he will overcome that.”
“Yeah, to a certain degree it is,” he said. “You know, normally I’m thinking in days and weeks. Now I’m thinking in hours. I’m excited about it. It’s been a long time since August 5th. Normally 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.”
It’s what he knows best. Tony’s got this. No worries.