Commentary

Anxious times for Tony Stewart

Updated: January 9, 2014, 8:09 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart isn't a bad patient. He just worries.

Rehabilitation and anticipation are the latest undiscovered elements of the worst injury of the 42-year-old's career.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesTony Stewart on his return to the No. 14 Chevrolet for next month's Daytona 500: "Physically I'm not going to feel 100 percent, but I'll be able to do my job 100 percent, so that's the main thing."

"I guess the hardest part is just not knowing where I'm supposed to be," he said on Thursday before Sprint Cup testing was canceled by rain at Daytona International Speedway. "I mean, I've never had an injury like this so I don't have anything to compare it to."

The three-time Sprint Cup champion surmises he won't be completely recovered from three surgeries to repair a broken right tibia and fibula suffered in an Aug. 5 sprint car accident. He can't control that. But he said he'll give completely what he has. That he can control, no matter the stress. Fortunately, he said, he has four weeks until it matters.

"I feel pretty good," he said. "I still have a little ways to go, but we've got four weeks to get ready the rest of the way. Even when we get here in February, it's not going to be 100 percent. Physically I'm not going to feel 100 percent, but I'll be able to do my job 100 percent, so that's the main thing.

"I don't mind it taking a little longer for the physical side to heal, as long as I can drive a race car when I need to when I get back."

Having previously logged nearly 700 NASCAR points races, 26 in Indy car and scores of sprint car races without serious injury, Stewart still struggles to assess milestones in his recovery. He judges progress and pains in weekly increments as if they were lap times. Troublesome little aches send him groping for his phone, which is why being Stewart's therapist is a 24-hour job.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesIt's been a lengthy recovery for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who needed crutches to amble about the garage last September at Dover.

"Just not knowing exactly what I'm supposed to feel like, if something hurts why is it hurting … I've not had those experiences before," said Stewart, who missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season. "The therapist gets his phone, I think he sets it on his nightstand at night because I call him at night and ask him a lot of questions. But having those guys around, it kind of takes the psychological side and kind of puts a lot of that at ease.

"He knows if I call, he's picking it up. I don't think his wife is happy I have his cell number, but I'm happy I have it. It's been a peace of mind for me."

Stewart can nag his therapist in person again beginning Friday night, as he is scheduled to resume his regular sessions after completing exercises at home and while traveling for the holidays. Recovering to race has been just part of a busy offseason for Stewart, whose team is undergoing an expansion in personnel and material and will contest the 2014 season as a four-driver program. Monitoring details with competition director Greg Zipadelli remained a necessity.

"We got done with the Charlotte test and he was the first person I spoke to on the way home," said Kevin Harvick, who joins Stewart-Haas Racing this season. "He's raced his whole life, so he wants to get back in the car. He wants to be competitive."

Stewart's hope of being competitive for the start of the season is bolstered by Daytona International Speedway being the first venue on the schedule. Though he's still not sure how his body will handle the rigors of Speedweeks -- including the non-points Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel -- and 200 laps around the high-banked, high-speed restrictor-plate track in the Daytona 500, it is preferable to smaller, more physically demanding venues.

"Luckily, this is a smooth racetrack. It's not rough and bumpy," he said. "If it were Dover, I would be a lot more concerned. But the hard part with here is you're just with your throttle, with your right leg, you're on the gas so long.

"That's the only thing we're worried about right now just because we just don't know until we get in a car and actually run, and we're not going to know that until the day before. We'll get a little bit of time in there, but we'll know a little better after practice is over."

Though Stewart is not scheduled to take a car to race speed until that pre-Sprint Unlimited practice, he has been driving a passenger car for four months. Underscoring his craving to return, a mundane seat-fitting became a melancholic experience at his shop in December.

"It felt like an old pair of shoes," he said of his No. 14 Chevrolet. "The hard part was 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."

Just a few more weeks.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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