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Stewart focused on recovery, 2014 return

November 29, 2013, Holly Cain,

Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion on the road to recovery from leg injury

There are nights when Tony Stewart swears the pain in his right leg feels as if someone is hammering in a 100 carpenter nails.

When this happens, sleeping isn’t an option, although doctors have assured him the sensation he’s feeling are the nerves working overtime internally to heal the shattered leg -- the tibia and fibula bones he cracked in a sprint car accident on Aug. 5 in Iowa which have required three surgeries since.

So, it’s on those especially tough and painful nights that Stewart pulls out his cell phone and resumes his quest to answer each and every one of the 850 text messages of support and concern he got within the first 24 hours of his accident.

"I have to do it in the middle of the night so that someone isn’t as likely to text me right back and it just adds to the list," Stewart says, breaking into a smile.

A few moments earlier NASCAR’s mighty three-time Sprint Cup Series champ had leaned on a black cane to help amble up the steep steps of his motor coach parked in the infield of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He sat down on a couch immediately and then grimaced slightly as he leaned back.

Speaking in soft, measured tones Stewart hardly sounded like the same guy whose sarcastic and quick-witted one-liners make him the best television sound bite in NASCAR.

If you know Stewart, this quiet demeanor is a little disarming.

But, he is quick to reassure you, some days are just tougher than others. And, of course, that makes sense considering he had just finished his fourth round of intensive physical therapy of the week -- his therapist travels to races with him.

It takes great effort for Stewart to simply get comfortable. The guy who tussled with Joey Logano on pit road this March and heaved a helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car last season struggled to just cautiously extend his leg outward.

Meanwhile nearby, the drivers of his three Stewart-Haas Racing cars – Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick and Stewart’s fill-in, Mark Martin (who has indicated that Homestead was his final Sprint Cup Series race) -- were preparing to mash the gas pedal in the final 2013 race.

As far as Stewart’s concerned, the best thing about Homestead being the last race is that he’s planning to be driving his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 in the next race, the season-opening Daytona 500. on Feb. 23.

"They [doctors] say we’re on schedule and they haven’t flinched from it, even after the third surgery," Stewart explained. "That one was a three-week setback, but we were a little ahead at that time so it just kind of put us back to being on time. Right now, there’s no drama. Barring any new infection or something stupid we have to go in and fix… everything should be fine.

"To me, it’s more about getting healthy again. If we get healthy the rest will come."

Despite the slow movement and apparent pain on this day, Stewart said there is improvement even he can’t always see it. It’s only in the last few weeks that he is walking on his own, depending less and less on the cane. You can imagine, that for a guy who makes a living on speed, it just doesn’t feel fast enough.

"I’m getting around better than I was but I’m not getting around like normal by any means," he said. "It’s kind of like an hour glass at the beginning of the day. When you get up and start moving, you turn the hourglass over. You stop and take a break and it’s like turning it on its side for a while.

"But once it’s out, whether it’s five o’clock in the afternoon or 11 o’clock at night, when it’s done, it’s done. Your leg tells you when it’s had enough for the day. It’s just learning what you can and can’t do. Knowing it’s going to be sore the next day if you’re up on it too long.

"Part of this is just not knowing. I’ve never been through this I’ve don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been around someone directly that’s had to go through it. So every day I don’t know what to expect from one day to the next."

To best cope with the pain, the unknowns, the timeline and his own expectations, Stewart has adopted his own philosophy on the healing process.

"Tell me where I’m supposed to be, give me a goal for the week, a goal until I see you [doctor] next time," Stewart explains, gesturing with his hands. "And that’s made it easy for me not to push myself into a setback because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do [three weeks out]. I’m just doing what they tell me.

"Until the therapist and the doctor and the surgeon tell me we’re in trouble then we’re on the same page, and I’ll be fine for Daytona. It’s more about getting healthy so I can do the day-to-day stuff and I don’t have to think about this [leg] anymore."

Despite the physical discomfort and daily inconveniences of the last four months, Stewart has remained determined to run his race team, which will expand to four cars in 2014 adding drivers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick to go with Stewart and Patrick.

At Homestead – as is the case whenever he’s at a race -- that meant Stewart dutifully spent valuable pre-race time with team VIPs and sponsor reps. He has maintained his role outside the car.

Stewart laughs thinking about his first meeting with the other team executives post-accident.

"Seven days after I got hurt, Eddie (Jarvis), Gene Haas and Joe Custer are sitting on dining room chairs around my bed and we’re discussing the Kurt (Busch) deal," Stewart said, shaking his head and smiling at the memory.

"There’s a lot of stuff going on and none of it stopped because of this, which is great because it shouldn’t stop.

"I guess I’m one of those people – I did it even when I got hurt in the IndyCar in 1996 – this is your scenario and this is what you’ve got to do and that’s it. You just do it. It wasn’t anything to get mad about from my standpoint, that wasn’t going to make it better. Getting frustrated wasn’t going to make it any better.

When Stewart made his first major public appearance in September, a news conference at SHR’s team headquarters, he was upbeat, funny, appreciative and philosophic.

He was of similar morale at Homestead, balancing healthy doses of realistic expectation and passionate anticipation. Not too long ago he was still getting nauseous just looking at photographs of his own injury.

"It went from being a million miles an hour to zero," Stewart said. "It’s like when you go in the garage area every day and the cars are up on jack-stands. That’s what I was for two and a half weeks, stuck in bed."

Stewart says the most comforting aspect of the whole ordeal has been a faith-stirring lesson in people and compassion.  

"There’s still people to this day checking every day with Eddie [Jarvis] to see how I’m doing and they have since day one,’’ Stewart says with some amazement in his voice.

"It shows you how many people respect who you are and what you mean to them in whatever capacity it is, whether it’s NASCAR, your friends, the sprint car community. There’s always people checking on us."

Stewart’s continued rehabilitation will be simultaneous with a renewed effort at SHR as a whole. Not only is the team in the frantic midst of expansion but it announced several key personnel moves earlier this month, including a new crew chief for Stewart – Chad Johnston, who will be his third in four seasons.

SHR’s 2013 season did not live up to expectations although there was an enviable highlight reel including Patrick’s historic pole win and eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, Newman’s win from the pole at Indianapolis and berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as well as Stewart’s own win at Dover in June, which helped put him on pace to earn a position in the Chase as well before his season-ending injury.

And his newly-honed, wider-perspective outlook has also come in handy with his race team.

"The good thing is, I was proud of our team," Stewart says emphatically. "They took Austin (Dillon) to Michigan that weekend [two weeks after the accident] and ran well.

"Honestly, I’m a little disappointed in our season. I thought we’d be better as a group than what we were. It shows us, that we, as an organization need to be better. All of us struggled. It wasn’t like one car got to going great and the rest didn’t. That shows it’s the whole organization. But it’s been good experience to show us our weaknesses and what we need to work on."

Stewart continued, reflecting on the broader picture.

"I think you’re always going to learn in scenarios like this," he said. "You learn what you mean to a lot of people.

"It’s a good balance in all reality. Joe Gibbs is parked next door and if not for him, I wouldn’t be in a position to do this at all. I’ve learned from him and from Eddie [Jarvis] to always have good people around us. And if you do that, you’re already prepared for scenarios like this.

"It tells you how good the people are around us.

"It allows you, when there’s days where my leg is really bothering me, to know I don’t have to think about anything but my leg."

And then, summoning the same grit and gumption that has made Stewart one of the greatest champions of all-time, he raised his voice and delivered the bottom line.

"Okay, this is the hand I’m dealt, how do I play this hand?" Stewart said. "You do what you’ve got to do."


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