DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart is confident he will be ready to race at full speed when the NASCAR season opens next month.
The three-time NASCAR champion has only been in a race car once, for a seat fitting, since breaking his right leg Aug. 5 in a sprint car accident. The broken tibia and fibula caused Stewart to miss the final 15 races of last season, and doctors won’t clear him to race until Feb. 14, the day before the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 23, just 10 days after Stewart will be cleared to get back in the car.
That’s plenty of time, he said.
“Physically, I’m not going to feel 100 percent,” Stewart said Thursday. “But I’ll be able to do my job 100 percent, so that’s the main thing.”
Stewart was at Daytona for the first day of preseason testing to support Stewart-Haas Racing, the team he co-owns with Gene Haas. Mark Martin was scheduled to drive Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet, but rain washed out all of Thursday’s on-track activity.
The 42-year-old Stewart made a stop in the media center, and was in good spirits as he spoke about his recovery.
He felt well enough over the holidays to spend 3 weeks at home in Indiana, and returned to North Carolina this week to resume physical therapy. Stewart said he doesn’t hesitate to call his physical therapist at all hours of the night with questions, and believes everything is on track, despite an Oct. 7 surgery to treat an infection.
That surgery was his third since the accident.
“We were actually ahead of schedule with the therapy when we had that surgery, so it basically just pushed it back to where we were right back on schedule again,” he said. “Now it just feels like we’re back ahead of schedule again. It’s still a question mark of what’s it actually going to feel like when we get in the race car and try to drive wide open for lap after lap.”
Stewart is definitely raring to go. He’s been driving a street car for 4 months, but his seat fitting at SHR last month was his only time in a race car and he didn’t want to get out.
“It felt like an old pair of shoes,” he said. “They kept telling me I had to get out of it. I wanted to sit in it. I felt like a kid. I wanted to keep moving the steering wheel and everything else. They said, ‘You have to get out so we can finish doing our job with the seat.’ That was kind of fun to get back in there. It kind of felt like the first time I got in one. It was that kind of excitement.”
Stewart also said he will return to sprint car racing this year – something he has insisted he won’t give up even after his accident at an Iowa dirt track. He pledged in the weeks after his crash to work toward improving safety in sprint car racing, and said although he hasn’t worked on his 2014 schedule yet, he’ll be racing and has a sponsor lined up.
“The Cup car is the priority right now, and making sure that we’re comfortable there,” he said. “Bouncing around in a sprint car is a little different deal. We’ll take a little more time, there’s not a sense of urgency. There’s not a set schedule for it yet. It’s more making sure that I feel 100 percent. But we’re pushing ahead on that side, as well, and getting cars ready.”