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A year later, Stewart refuses to be held back

August 05, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Results have lacked since injury, but passion for racing remains unwavering

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All grit and fire behind the wheel of a race car, Tony Stewart has a sentimental side, too, and that was evident this week as he traveled to Oskaloosa, Iowa on Monday night to watch the very sprint car race that he was severely injured competing in one year ago.

Stewart told NASCAR.com he even made a point to go to the place on the half-mile dirt track where his car landed and paramedics responded to the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ, who had suffered a broken right tibia and fibula in the crash.

"That was a big deal to me,'' Stewart said Tuesday -- a year to the day since his accident.

"I told everyone after our competition meeting (at Stewart-Haas Racing) yesterday that I was going out to Iowa for my anniversary."

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Stewart will remain in Iowa before heading to Watkins Glen for the NASCAR race weekend, a place where he is the all-time winningest driver with five victories. He'll spend much of the week trackside for the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals -- sprint car racing's version of the Daytona 500, which will be held later this week.

On Wednesday, Stewart will race a go-kart against fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson as well as more than 50 race fans who have donated to Kick-It, a program of the Jeff Gordon Children Foundation. The karting event will be held in conjunction with the Tony Stewart Kick-It Cup.

And it all comes on the heels of a triumphant and storybook return to sprint car competition three weeks ago when he won the first sprint car race he entered since suffering the 2013 season-ending injuries last summer.

While Stewart was obviously elated with his victorious comeback, he has also insisted all along that there has never been a precise timetable to get back in the saddle. Or for much else.

Instead, he has discovered that his recovery has been as much about the unchartered journey as the ultimate destination. And much of that trek has been inward and insightful.

"You don't know what to expect because it's been a longer process than I thought; I mean it took me until December early January to realize how severe (the injury) was and what was involved,'' Stewart said earlier this summer, his tone quiet and reflective.

"Anytime you go through something like this the first time you don't really know what to expect. There's nothing to compare it to, don't know how long it's supposed to take (to feel better).

"The biggest thing when you go through something like this, is you realize who your true friends are, you realize who really cares about you. The great thing was there were a lot of people who really care."

Then he added with a smile, "Some people cared more than I thought they did and some who didn't care as much as I thought they did.

"You find out the racing community, as big as it is, is still very small. People from all forms of racing were calling to check on us. When you're hurt and need that little boost it really helps."

When Stewart showed up at Daytona International Speedway for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, he conceded he wasn't at 100 percent yet, but certainly well enough to be competitive.

Through the first six months of the season, Stewart's stamina, toughness, edge and even judgment have been examined with each race result and interview opportunity.

There will be those that question his recovery considering he hasn't secured a spot in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason yet with only five races remaining to set the 16-driver field. The driver with the longest current winning streak -- 15 straight seasons -- is winless and ranked 19th in the championship standings, not high enough yet to earn a Chase bid by virtue of points position.

When not a victim of poor fortune -- he has been wrecked out of all three restrictor plate races and last week at Pocono --  Stewart has been competitive, even if not the odds-on front-runner quite yet.

But no one is better than Stewart at this week's venue in upstate New York and how fitting it would it be for him to come full circle on his recovery at a road course.

The expression "live and learn" sounds trite, but that's exactly what Stewart has done this past year. His sprint car accident taught the sport ways to improve safety there.

And despite the tough and painful recovery, never once during the last 12 months has Stewart's passion for racing wavered.

Hoisting a trophy this weekend -- one year after such a serious injury -- would be the ultimate way to mark this particular milestone in a certain-to-be Hall of Fame career that will be defined more by how Stewart forged ahead not by what could have held him back.

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