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Recovering Tony Stewart preparing for final test

January 27, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Three-time champion eagerly awaits return at Daytona

MORE: Tony Stewart driver profile | SHR team ready to support each other | Team preview: SHR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The strains of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" boomed over the public address system as Tony Stewart took to the stage Monday for the opening session of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. In a long and painful recovery process, getting back in the saddle of his No. 14 car is the final step the three-time champion has yet to take.

He's sat in the vehicle for seat and pedal fittings, he's received clearance from doctors to be back behind the wheel for opening Sprint Unlimited practice Feb. 14 at Daytona, he's even walking with less of a limp. After being sidelined since August due to a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car crash, Stewart is nearing the final phase of his rehabilitation -- getting back in the race car under real, competitive conditions. What happens then? That's something even Stewart won’t be sure of until it transpires.

"I think Friday and Saturday at Daytona are going to answer a lot of the questions I have, and you guys have, too," Stewart told reporters, referring to the opening days of on-track activity Feb. 14 and 15. "The hard part is, we're doing everything we can to prepare for every scenario we can think of. But we're not truly going to have the answers until we get in the car. I'm hoping we go out that first session and go, 'Man, we worked way too hard and worried about way too much.' … But it's better to be over prepared than underprepared."

Last week, Stewart received clearance from doctors to be in the car for opening Sprint Unlimited practice, something Stewart-Haas Racing’s Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli said was expected given the progress the driver had shown in prior checkups. The goal all along, Zipadelli added, was to give Stewart up to mid-February "to let that leg heal as long as it can, let him do as much therapy as he can, and then we’re going to feed him to the wolves."

Now, after months of rehab, the wolves are mere weeks away. Monday at the SHR stop on the media tour, which is presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stewart was in excellent spirits. "I feel great," he said. "I'm excited. I'm counting down the days to get to Daytona." Technically his right let is 65 percent healed, he added, with the implanted metal rod making up the difference. And although Stewart hasn't yet had a pain-free day since the Aug. 5 accident, he thinks he's "over the hump of the hard part" of his recovery, and all that remains is to race.

"I don't feel 100 percent, but when I sit in the car, I feel fine," he said. "I don't feel any discomfort or pain when I drive a street car. Now granted, I haven't driven the race car yet. But our seats are molded to us, it's more comfortable sitting in the race car than it is the passenger car. The pedals are exactly where you want them, the steering is exactly where you want it, versus a street car. As long as we're not having problems with vibration or things we haven’t had occur in a street car yet, I don’t see there being anything that's going to be a drama. It's more just not knowing 100 percent until we get there. But I don’t see anything that's going to be a problem."

Neither does Zipadelli, despite the unknowns that will lurk when Stewart rolls out onto the race track in a Sprint Cup Series car for the first time since he finished ninth at Pocono last Aug. 4, the day before the accident on a dirt track in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Stewart broke both bones in his lower right leg in the crash, suffered substantial muscle and tissue damage, and has undergone three surgeries since.

"I think the only thing we don't know is, how does his leg do in the heat, and his leg being stretched, particularly at Daytona, where you're on the throttle for so long," Zipadelli said. "Those cramps, and things you don’t know until you get in that situation. But doctors say he's good to go, and they're the people who make the call. He's had really, really good results with his therapy. I know he's still limping, but compared to where he was a few months ago, it's amazing how much better he is getting around, getting in and out of the car. He was (at the shop) the other day, guys were there checking pedals and the seat, making sure he was comfortable, seat belts and all that stuff. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off his face, as excited as he was to be sitting in that car."

Yet Stewart will admit, nothing prepares him for driving a car better than doing just that, and his level of race fitness behind the wheel won't be what it when he last left it. He's sat in his No. 14 and pressed the pedals "a million times," he said, but there's no substitute for the real thing. And while he's still dealing with a degree of pain every day, he said he feels more comfortable in a molded driving seat than he does even lying in bed.

"The fact that I know from experience that being in a race car is even more comfortable than that, I don't think it's going to be a problem in the car," he said. "Now, if I have to get up an walk in a hurry, that brings discomfort. But we're talking about something totally different than what it's going to be like in the car, so I'm confident we're going to be fine."

The Daytona 500 is just the beginning of a long season, but Stewart believes his crew will be able to adjust the cockpit area on a week-by-week basis to improve their driver's comfort level if needed. Monday, when the three-time champ occasionally jousted playfully with the media, brought further proof that the acerbic Stewart we've long known outside the car is back at full strength. Now all that remains is to see if the tenacious competitor on the track has returned as well.

Toward that end, there's one thing that gives Zipadelli faith.

"Knowing him. Knowing there were a lot of fans that were disappointed, and sponsors, and the 265 employees that we have -- they're counting on him to come back and be the Tony Stewart of old," said Zipadelli, who was Stewart's crew chief when the two were at Joe Gibbs Racing.

"God has a strange way of doing things, and this might have been a way of resting his body. We all know what he's done the last 14, 15 years -- racing 24/7, running around the world, sleeping in a plane to the next place. I feel like he's well-rested. I feel like his mind is good. He's as upbeat as I've seen him in -- gosh almighty, years. Not last year. Years. So I'm going by past and faith that he'll be back and be as good as he was. This is his life. He's not like a lot of other people. He doesn't have a lot of other things. This is it. And as passionate as he is, I just assume and expect he'll be back and as good as ever."

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