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Tony time: Stewart makes triumphant return

February 14, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Friday practice felt like 'business as usual' for veteran

RELATED: Results from Friday's practices

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart, unshaven and smiling, admitted "that's way too long to wait to get back in a race car, that's for sure."

Stewart, sidelined for the final 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of 2013, made his first laps in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet here at Daytona International Speedway on Friday as practice for Saturday's Sprint Unlimited got underway.

"The great thing is there is zero percentage of pain in the car," said Stewart, still limping from the broken leg suffered Aug. 5 in a sprint car race. "That was nice. We'll see what it feels like at 9 o'clock tonight, but so far so good. That's better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache or pain, but it was like putting on a pair of shoes again."

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Stewart completed a total of 50 laps during the two practice sessions to wrap up his first day back behind the wheel. He was 10th on the speed chart (197.377 mph) in the first session among the 18 drivers scheduled to participate in Saturday’s non-points event. In the closing session, he was ninth at 197.994 mph.
 
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin led the first and second sessions, respectively.

"Once I got the relief of knowing it was not hurting anywhere, then it was just the joy of being back out there again," Stewart, 42, said. "It didn't feel like I'd been gone seven months when we started running. It did (earlier) today though; every five minutes I was looking at the clock from 3 o'clock on. I just wanted to get dressed and come in. That (wait) was small compared to the seven months."

Stewart, a three-time winner of the Sprint Unlimited, is working with a new crew chief -- Chad Johnston has replaced Steve Addington atop the pit box -- and has new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, as well as 2013 teammate Danica Patrick.

Concerns about the possible pain dissipated quickly, he said, and talk quickly turned to the handling of the car.

"As soon as we came in from that first run there, we were already talking about how (the car) was sucking up (in the draft), how it felt when we were leading, already going over details to what we can do to make it better for tomorrow," he said.

"Once I got in the car and once I didn't feel the pain anymore, it was right back to business as usual. Denny (Hamlin) pushed me down the frontstretch and we got a little wiggly … it was crazy how it just felt like it was yesterday that we were doing the same thing. For somebody that hadn't been in a car, it sure doesn't feel like it. It feels like I was in it a week ago. So I was pleasantly surprised.

"Today in the big picture was just another practice … but obviously it was a little bigger than normal for us."

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