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Tested Stewart Heads To Phoenix For Real Racing

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, February 28 2014

Tony Stewarts says all is good after months of rehab. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Speedweeks was much more than a series of races and practices driver Tony Stewart. It was also a series of tests. This week, with the Daytona 500 behind him – comfortably behind him – Stewart says that while the racing didn’t go as hoped at Daytona International Speedway, the accompanying tests did.

At Daytona, Stewart was getting back into a Sprint Cup car for the first time since breaking his leg during a crash in a sprint car race in Iowa last August. It was an injury that forced several surgeries and which caused him to miss the final 15 races of the 2013 season.

For people who have watched Stewart race over the years, for those who know how much it takes to keep Stewart out of a car for six months, there was considerable trepidation when the garages opened at Daytona.

Would Stewart be the same Stewart – physically and emotionally – that has won everything from the USAC triple crown to three Sprint Cup championships?

While he got caught up in one of the big wrecks in the 500 and only completed 174 laps, the man himself is heading to Arizona for this weekend’s race at Phoenix International Raceway with thumbs in the air.

“A lot more confident than I was before we got to Daytona,” he said when asked about his frame of mind. “I think having all the races that we ran, and actually getting in a crash, while not a great thing, allowed me to sort of test my leg and it felt good.

Next up for Tony Stewart is the Phoenix short track. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

“As far as being in the race car, there have been some little things that have felt a little different, but for the most part, it’s felt like an old pair of tennis shoes that you’re just comfortable with. I think the whole time in Daytona exceeded my expectations of what I hoped it would be like.”

Some who saw Stewart walking the garages at Daytona International Speedway remarked that he looked a little older, that the whole experience of being busted up in a racing incident – for, if not for the first time, then for the worst time in his career – took a visible toll.

It’s doubtful that those people made the remarks to Stewart’s face as the 42-year-old Indiana driver clearly had not lost any of his toughness.

Just ask him.

“I think I’m pretty tough, honestly,” he said. “Every injury is different for everybody. No two people have exactly the same injuries, and I’ve never had anything like this happen, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. The confidence you get from it is from your surgeon and from your therapist, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, we can’t believe how good this looks or how good you’re feeling or how good a progress you’re making.’ I’ve got guys that shoot me straight. They’re not just saying these things to motivate me. They’re just saying we didn’t expect you to be able to do this at this time. Being able to have those personal gains and victories keeps us pretty motivated.”

Stewart said during Speedweeks that he arrived in Daytona about 65-percent recovered.

Asked this week when that number would increase to 100 percent, he said he didn’t know.

“I keep asking the therapist the same thing,” Stewart said. “The surgeon and the therapist have said that they feel like we’re going to have 100 percent recovery. They don’t see anything in the progress that leads them to believe

He's back.

otherwise. But, there are no guarantees. If this is all the better it gets right now, I’m not disappointed. I’m able to do most of the stuff that I want to do. I’m not going to be running 100‑yard dashes anytime soon, but the progress has been really good, and at the rate we’re progressing, it’s almost like we’re really taking big leaps each session now. I think the hard part is over, and we’ve still got to work hard, but we’ve gotten through the hardest part now.”

The racing and the testing will go on for 35 more events for Stewart this year. The next come at the PIR short track where he first raced 21 years ago in a USAC Silver Crown car.

It’s a place where Stewart has won only once in a Sprint Cup car, but where he has 22 top-10 finishes in 23 starts.

It’s a place were the troubles he had on the track at Daytona can be forgotten.

“Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front,” Stewart said. “Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”

And going racing is something not even a thoroughly trashed leg can keep Stewart from doing.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, February 28 2014
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