DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The countdown clock for Tony Stewart’s return to racing is no longer at months, weeks or even days.
The three-time NASCAR champion was scheduled to be back in a race car Friday for the first time since he broke his right leg in August. Six months and three surgeries after that sprint car crash, Stewart felt a little bit like a kid getting ready for his first race.
“I’m thinking in hours. It’s been a long time since August 5th,” Stewart said Thursday at Daytona 500 media day. “Normally, we’re talking about the offseason, it seems like it flies by. But this has been the slowest offseason I’ve ever had. I’m ready to get doing something again.”
He gets his chance Friday with two practice sessions totaling 105 minutes at Daytona International Speedway. His first race is Saturday night in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
If he was worried about his return, Stewart didn’t let on. Although he said his leg, which required an aluminum rod to be inserted for stability, is only 65 percent healed, Stewart believes his race team had thought of everything to ensure he’ll be comfortable in the No. 14 Chevrolet.
Stewart-Haas Racing addressed the cockpit of the car, and new teammate Kevin Harvick ordered Stewart a special pad that hangs off the steering wheel and prevents his knees from banging into the steering column.
“We’ve tried to think of absolutely anything that could be a problem,” Stewart said. “Our therapy has been going really well, and in the last few weeks, we’ve made huge gains. I don’t know how we could be more prepared than what we are right now.
“The perfect scenario: everything would be healed 100 percent and we wouldn’t be talking about it. But the bone is still about 65-percent healed right now. But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be.”
Few competitors thought Stewart would have any difficulty in his return.
Winner of three championships and 48 races at NASCAR’s highest level, Stewart has proven his entire career to be competitive in any vehicle he drives.
“I think Tony has less challenges because he’s more talented,” said Denny Hamlin, who struggled all last season with back pain after missing almost five full races with a fractured vertebra. “He’s shown he wins in everything he gets in, so I think not being in the car for him, although it’s been for a longer period of time that I was out, it will come relatively easy.”
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon wondered if Stewart’s biggest hurdle would not be physical but rather overcoming any engineering advancements that have been made since he was injured. But judging by Stewart’s appearances — he’s lost roughly 20 pounds since the accident — Gordon wondered if Stewart might be feeling pretty good these days.
“He might be in better shape now than he’s ever been because of the physical therapy,” Gordon said. “I haven’t asked him what it’s like to push on the gas pedal and if there’s pain involved, and there are certainly going to be some challenges. But it’s Tony Stewart. I’m not overly concerned with the challenges that he’s going to have from being able to either withstand some pain or get up to speed and be a fierce competitor.”
Brad Keselowski broke his left ankle in a crash during testing in 2011. He was injured on a Wednesday, refused to not race that weekend, and won that Sunday at Pocono. He admitted Thursday it was difficult to stay in the car for an entire race and credits Stewart for coming back before he’s fully healed.
“I know it won’t be easy at all. His injury is certainly a lot more significant than mine,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but he’s done a lot of other great things in his career and if he’s able to come back out and run full races and be competitive, I think that would probably go right up there with his greatest accomplishments.”
Clint Bowyer was one of the few drivers who took a humorous approach to Stewart’s return.
“He was pretty damn good before. I hope it slowed him down — just a couple tenths, you know?” Bowyer joked. “Give us a couple tenths.”