With the 56th running of the Daytona 500 quickly approaching, a lot of talk has been circulating about Tony Stewart, and whether he will be ready to go now that he has his broken leg back on the ground after nearly seven months of recuperating. Stewart has no worries, however, and has proclaimed himself fit and ready to go. Neither injury, nor challenging starting position, nor an early exit from the Sprint Unlimited race has been enough to sidetrack him from his attempt to win the Daytona 500 for the first time on February 23.
It has been a long road back to the Daytona International Speedway, and the beginning of this year’s Sprint Cup competition. When he was sidelined for 15 races following the fracture of two bones in his right leg, it was the first time Stewart did not start a Sprint Cup race since February 14, 1999. His injury on August 5, on a dirt track in a sprint car race in Iowa, came one day after Smoke’s Sprint Cup race at the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. It was start No. 521 for him. While there have been months of rehabilitation and preparation in the interim, Tony Stewart in now ready to hit the ground running as he makes start No. 522 in the Daytona 500 next week.
It has been a difficult start to the 2014 season for the Stewart-Haas racing team. Both Stewart, and teammate, Danica Patrick, blew engines during practice on Saturday, and will be required by NASCAR to start the Daytona 500 from the rear of the pack as a penalty for replacing the blown engines. Patrick expressed frustration that race officials decided that the punishment would apply not only to Thursday’s qualifying races, but to the main event on Sunday as well. Stewart, on the other hand, was more pragmatic in his response. He told the media that if someone couldn’t get to the front of the pack within 500 miles, then they probably wouldn’t have been able to win the race from any starting position. He has lost none of the fire and focus that has made him a fan-favorite. Not even as early exit in lap 35 from the Sprint Unlimited race has been able to take his eyes off of the goal of taking the checkered flag for the first time at the Daytona 500.
Stewart is no stranger to the winner’s circle at Daytona. He has 19 victories in races held at this particular venue. The 500, however, remains the one he wants to add to his resume. Aside from erasing the doubts of those who have been saying his return is too early in his recovery for him to race effectively, it would also silence those critics who have questioned his ability to start racing seasons as strongly as he finishes them. More than anything, though, it is just the next title that he has yet to achieve. Stewart has won championships in virtually every type of racing that he has ever attempted, from open-wheel, to dirt track, to three NASCAR titles. Eyes are on this weekend in Daytona not because it will be a pinnacle, but just because it is next in a long line of goals fought for and won.
When asked about what anxieties he had about getting back into a race car, Stewart replied that he had none, whatsoever. He, instead, said that he was merely impatient to get started. He pointed out that he is coming back at the beginning of a Sprint Cup season, so there will be no catching up to do. As frustrating as it was to watch the last season play out without him may have been, he starts from scratch with everyone else this season. That being the case, Smoke has never lacked the confidence to like his chances better than most. He pointed to a very successful run of therapy and rehabilitation, including the use of a custom therapy chair built by his shop with pedals and pressurized shocks to simulate conditions in a race car. Normal therapy, he explained, does not include re-training for the specific demands of racing full throttle for an extended period. He is confident that his modified training has put him in a good position for his run at the approaching Daytona 500.
Tony Stewart is ready to leave some of the tools of his rehabilitation behind, if not the therapy itself. While he acknowledges that he is still in the healing process, and will continue to work to erase any lingering effects from the injury, he is leaving his temporary conveyance behind as he steps back into the No. 14 for Daytona. The custom-painted scooter which carried him everywhere during his recovery is being donated to the Darrell Gwynn Foundation to be auctioned off in April at an event in Palm Beach, FL. He is donating an entire package of merchandise and prizes which includes a race-worn fire suit and pit box seats for the Coke Zero 400 in July. In addition, he will be matching the first $50,000 bids as a separate donation to the charity, with which he has had a long-standing relationship. The Darrell Gwynn Foundation works to provide support for people with paralysis, and to prevent spinal cord injuries through programs it sponsors. Smoke made an impact with his return before he ever set foot back in a car.
There is no shortage of challenges that face the Stewart-Haas racing team this weekend. The lap-35 exit of a majority of the team in the Sprint Unlimited was disappointing. The back-of-the-line start on Sunday for Patrick and Stewart presents a difficult challenge, as well. Seven months of therapy and recovery have cast doubts on whether or not Smoke can really find the winner’s circle this soon. With Tony Stewart no longer running around on his scooter, there are few who don’t like his chances as he approaches the hallowed ground of the Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500.
By Jim Malone