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Even with injury, he's still same old Tony

September 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Injured driver expected back behind the wheel in 2014

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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- He was funny bordering on smart-alecky, steadfast bordering on a little defiant, and he made jokes about his weight and getting hot girls.

Yep, same ’ol Tony.

Thankfully.

No one really knew what to expect from Tony Stewart on Tuesday, when the three-time champion of NASCAR’s premier division made his first public appearance since breaking two bones in his lower right leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa early last month. Truth is, he looked good -- lost a little weight, maybe? -- and sounded even better, taking questions for over an hour from media members, which isn’t always his favorite thing to do. This time, though, it was a respite from the boredom of bed rest.

“I've got to watch Oprah the last four weeks now,” he said, “and I'm very tired of watching TV.”

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Stewart made his way onto a dais set up in the lobby of Stewart-Haas Racing using a wheelchair, and is wearing a walking boot to protect the leg where his tibia and fibula were fractured on the night of Aug. 5. He’s been buzzing around the shop on an electric scooter that was a gift from future teammate Kurt Busch, and got his first set of crutches just last week. Sponsor appearances loom, as does a return to the race track this week in Richmond, and then beyond that the Daytona 500 and getting back behind the wheel.

For the first time, the end of this very painful road for Stewart is in sight. Drivers are a tough breed, accustomed to putting up with discomfort for long stretches in the race car, not to mention the bumps and bruises that accompany the occasional tumble. But Stewart made no effort to hide it -- this situation has been hard, harder than anything else he’s had to endure physically. We’re talking compound fractures, skin and tissue ripped apart when a piece of his sprint car ravaged his right leg.

Sitting up there joking like his old self, he made it seem so effortless. It’s been anything but.

“The injuries are not just compound fractures. That was probably the easiest part of it. There is tissue damage, there's skin damage that's involved, and that's kind of been the first part of this process that the doctor was concerned about was before even the bones,” Stewart said.

“The first phase of this healing process was getting the skin to heal together, which I'll admit I've been about as squeamish as anybody you've ever seen. I literally have damned near passed out at every doctor visit I've been to so far with the surgeon. I go into it with the attitude that I'm not going to look at my leg, and as soon as they get the wrapping off of it, I'm like, ‘I've got to look.’ It's like yelling at a dog going ‘Squirrel!’ I cannot not look. And then I spend the rest of the time sitting there with a wet washcloth on my forehead trying to regain consciousness.”

Translation: this was a major deal, a devastating injury perhaps prevented from becoming career-ending by the fact that a doctor from South Dakota was the first person to reach him in his mangled sprint car. Even now, he still faces a slight risk of infection. Stewart remembers his right leg feeling numb after the accident, but because he was wearing a firesuit he didn’t realize just how damaged the appendage was -- until he saw the X-rays after the first of two surgeries. “At that point,” he said, “I knew we were going to be out.”

As in, for the year. There’s still physical therapy to be done, more stitches to be removed, a continued recovery process that will perhaps preclude him from doing anything in a race car until Speedweeks of 2014. Doctors tell him the leg will be stronger than ever when it does heal and he’ll be good to go for the Daytona 500. But he has to get there first.

And yet, keeping down the irrepressible Stewart is a futile act. No question, he’ll emerge from this episode a little wiser, and likely a little more hesitant to load up on his beloved sprint car races like he did this year. In hindsight he admits this season’s 70-event schedule was a tad aggressive, and he was feeling the wear and tear by Brickyard week in late July.

“Definitely going to cut back quite a bit,” he said, citing scheduling purposes and not his injury as the primary reason why.

But walk away from it altogether? Stewart, a former U.S. Auto Club star who cut his racing teeth in the discipline? Hardly. He’s going to work toward making sprint cars safer, hoping that his injury and the fatal crash of former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler combine to spur the sea change of progress that major stock-car racing went through after Dale Earnhardt’s death. But step away from it permanently?

Why, he wouldn’t be Tony Stewart if he did that.

“I am going to get back in a car eventually,” he said, and he’s not referring to his No. 14.

Stewart has always been a person and an athlete who lives and races on his terms, a quality that not only makes him immensely popular within the NASCAR fan base, but also somewhat larger than life. “A modern-day A.J. Foyt,” he’s been called by Mark Martin, who’s filling in for most of the remainder of this season in Stewart’s car. Foyt also just happens to be Stewart’s idol, not to mention a driver who’s cheated meeting his maker more times than anyone can count.

“We are all here a short amount of time in the big picture, and I'm somebody that wants to live life,” Stewart said. “I'm not somebody that wants to sit there and say, ‘I've got to guard against this, and I've got to worry about that.’ I mean, if I got in a race car and didn't wear a helmet and didn't wear seatbelts, then that would be dangerous, and that's being foolish. We don't do that. But I'm going to go live my life. I'm going to take full advantage of whatever time I've got on this earth. I'm going to ride it out to the fullest and I'm going to get my money's worth. You can bet your butt on that.”

Yep. He may have been seated in a wheelchair and wearing a walking boot, but he’s the same ’ol Tony, all right. And everyone involved in NASCAR can certainly be grateful for that.

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