Based upon how he looked this past Monday on the opening day of the 32nd annual NASCAR media tour in Charlotte, N.C., Tony Stewart fans can breath a collective sigh of relief. Their favorite driver appears healthy and ready to resume the rigors of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in just over a week in preparation for the Feb. 23 Daytona 500.
To say that Stewart's recovery from a sprint car accident early last August—which resulted in multiple fractures of his leg, requiring at least three surgeries, lengthy hospitalizations and an even lengthier recovery—has been arduous is putting it mildly.
But the man nicknamed "Smoke" looks good. While he may have a few more grey hairs, heck, he almost looks totally like the old Tony.
Why, he even has a slight paunch in his midsection, which has become somewhat of a trademark of his over his career. Probably a few too many Oreos and cans of Schlitz beer over the last six months, but that's another story for another time.
The biggest key is Stewart WILL race at Daytona, just slightly more than six months after the worst wreck of his racing career.
I'm sure there were numerous doubters who wondered if Stewart would ever be able to race again, let alone be able to make it back inside a race car slightly over six months after the wreck. But to his credit, the sometimes cantankerous Stewart was nothing but a model patient in his attempts and efforts to return to 100 percent physical form.
Admittedly, Stewart said last Monday that he isn't 100 percent just yet. He wouldn't give a number, but it's fair to say he's probably around 85 to 90 percent. The remainder of his recovery will take time. But the most important thing is he has not only been cleared by his own doctors to race, but also NASCAR's doctors, having received clearance a little over a week ago.
Sure, there's the risk that Stewart could re-injure himself in a wreck in a Sprint Cup car, particularly in the always unpredictable 500. But he is going into Speedweeks with no fear or hesitation. This is the way he earns his living. This is what he loves to do—and what he does best. It's also what inspired and drove him forward during the long recovery and rehab from last summer's crash.
Stewart even surprised the more than 200 media members on the tour, saying he fully intended to go back to his extracurricular schedule of racing in other series during his off-time from the Sprint Cup grind.
Some race car drivers go fishing or hunting to relax, but not Stewart and others like Kyle Busch. If there's a race to be run somewhere between California and Maine, they'll find it. In other words, Stewart fully intends to "relax" by racing sprint cars and modifieds at any dirt track or paved short track that will have him.
Doing just that is what caused him trouble last year. He had been attempting to compete in 100 total races in 2013—36 Sprint Cup events and 60-plus races in the sprint car and modified world.
You'd think that suffering such a devastating injury would prompt Stewart to forgo any more extracurricular racing going forward, but not the Columbus, Ind., native. In addition to racing in Sprint Cup, he fully intends on getting back in his beloved sprint cars and modifieds at some point this season and essentially picking up where he left off when his racing exploits were so rudely wrecked.
One thing, however, is different heading into the new season. Stewart will voluntarily not compete in the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona, which is held the day before Sprint Cup's Great American Race.
There's no sense in pushing himself too much early on. Yes, he's cleared to race in the 500 as well as the rest of the Sprint Cup season, but even Stewart knows he should be a bit more judicious about pushing himself physically, particularly early in the season. He can always race in the July Nationwide Series race at Daytona if he wants to.
Stewart and his handlers are smart enough to know that if he tries to race at 85 or 90 percent in not only Sprint Cup, but also in other series, he could be setting himself up for trouble. Not to mention the potential for major setback, if not running the risk of incurring other injuries from other wrecks.
So, for now, Stewart will race in only his full-time capacity, namely, Sprint Cup—and not sprint car (there's a big difference, obviously, between those two genres).
I can understand that there very well may be numerous Stewart fans who, while they're ecstatic about seeing him back in the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, they're also worried about the risk of re-injury. It's human nature to think that, especially of someone many fans consider part of their extended family.
Stewart should be both humbled and flattered that his fans are so concerned about his well-being—and he is, based upon what he told reporters last week.
But as gritty, determined and competitive of an individual as he is, he's also no fool. He knows that another really bad wreck, particularly in a series other than the more protective world of Sprint Cup, could not just set him back, it could potentially knock him out this time for a lot longer, if not for the rest of his career.
That's why, if you were hoping to see Stewart race in a sprint car or modified at a local short track near you sometime this spring, summer or fall, don't be surprised if that doesn't happen. He needs to take care of himself first and his Sprint Cup career second, and only then, when he's 100 percent recovered and healthy, should he think about climbing into a sprint car or modified.
Anything else would be foolish—and Stewart knows that.
*All information was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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