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At his orneriest, Stewart's also at his best

March 07, 2014, Holly Cain,

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LAS VEGAS -- The look on Tony Stewart's face as he climbed out of his worn-out Chevrolet shortly after the Daytona 500 checkered flag said it all.

Looking frustrated and disappointed in a 35th-place finish, he made it clear that it wasn't his healing broken leg that was bothering him when he was asked how he felt during his first race back following a six-month layoff.

"I feel like someone kicked me in the (gut)," Stewart said. Then he walked away, trophy-less in the 500 again.

Last week before the Phoenix race, reporters again asked Stewart how his leg was doing.

"I'll be honest, I'll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel," Stewart said. "I'm not 100 percent. I'm not going to be 100 percent for a while. It was fine. There wasn't any drama, same as we said for the shootout, same as we said for the qualifying race and same as we said after the (Daytona) 500. 

"I appreciate everybody checking on me, but it's not going to change in a week. It wasn't a big drama, everything is fine. Hopefully, we will be able to talk a year from now about how far we have come."

If the barometer for Stewart's health and pace of return is based on how feisty he is, then the good news for his fans is that he is apparently back in fine form.

And that's bad news for his competitors who essentially gained a freebie spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field last year when the three-time Cup champion was sidelined after breaking his leg following an Aug. 5 crash in a sprint car race.

Of course, it's not like any of the Cup drivers expect any less. Stewart is a threat even if physically half-throttled.

"I know how excited I am getting in a race car, I couldn't imagine sitting on the sidelines for months and not being able to get back in the car and put all those crazy thoughts out of your head -- if you'd be able to race again, what it feel like, is it going to hurt?" said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick. "Just putting all those things to rest for him is going to be great. If anything is sore or hurts, you'll never hear about it."

Like most of the other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regulars, Harvick said he has no doubt Stewart will not only be competitive this season, but also in championship form.

"I knew Tony was a pretty intense guy but we went to a Jimmy John's event (during the offseason) and … he got on that plane and he was like a crazed lunatic," Harvick said with a grin. "You could see that look in his eye. He looked at me and said, 'I'm ready to… race!' Just that look in his eye. I knew he was a pretty intense person but I was like, 'Yeah, that's cool.' "

To a driver, Stewart's competitors were certain he would be a title contender in 2014. No hesitation.

In fact, when asked to gauge expectations during the preseason, it was mostly nervous consideration of how his return might adversely affect their weekly chances.

"Tony is a factor, he's always a factor," Jeff Gordon said. "Every weekend you can't ever count out Tony Stewart as being somebody you're going to have to deal with."

Stewart's mood had drastically improved by the time he arrived in Las Vegas this week. His 16th-place finish at Phoenix was progress, and he was buoyed by Harvick's victory there in only his second start for SHR.

Las Vegas is Stewart's kind of town. Beyond the fact he's a former winner (2012) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he loves the pace and action of the locale.

And as Harvick was reminded during a recent trip to Vegas with Stewart, it would be unwise to ever underestimate the drive, the grit or the preparation -- especially given a challenge to overcome.

"I feel like as we go through situations, I've learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know," Harvick said. "I sat at a roulette wheel with Tony in Vegas about four weeks ago. I learned he's just short of 'Rain Man.' He doesn't say anything. He sits there and listens to everything you say, takes all these things in. 

"I know I'm going to say something and he's going to remember it four, five, six weeks down the road. I've learned just sitting in the competition meetings that we've had that he's a listener. I think there's a lot to be said for that.”

Told of the high expectations his competitors held for his season, Stewart smiled. He seemed humbled to hear that no one anticipated anything but the best.

"I mean, we all know each other personality-wise," Stewart said. "We all know our drive and determination amongst each other."

And for those concerned with how Stewart is feeling, it will become apparent the first time he drives his No. 14 Chevrolet into Victory Lane this season.


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