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Time draws near for Tony Stewart's return

February 13, 2014, Kenny Bruce,

'Smoke' won't have back-up driver when practice begins Friday

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart, sidelined since breaking his right leg in a sprint car race last August, returns to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition Friday when practice for this weekend's Sprint Unlimited begins here at Daytona International Speedway.

"Normally I'm thinking in days and weeks and now I'm thinking in hours," Stewart said during Thursday's Media Day at Daytona. "I'm excited about it. It's been a long time since August 5. Normally we're talking about the offseason and it just seems like it just flies by. It's been the slowest offseason I've ever had."

A three-time Sprint Cup Series champion (2002, 2005, 2011), Stewart missed the final 15 races last year. As the season played itself out, Stewart endured three surgeries and months of intense rehabilitation, all with the goal of being ready to return when the 2014 season got underway.

"The great thing is everybody at our shop, especially the guy that does the interior in our car (Shane Church), he and (crew chief) Chad (Johnston) have worked closely together," Stewart said. "We've tried to think of absolutely anything that could be a problem."

Pedal angles have been adjusted. Teammate Kevin Harvick ordered and had "knee knockers," padding that hangs from the steering column to keep a driver's knees from making contact, installed in Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet.

"He was like 'You're running this' so he didn't even believe it was an option," Stewart said. "I showed up and it was in my car."

Harvick and Kurt Busch are new to the Stewart-Haas Racing organization for 2014. Danica Patrick returns for her sophomore season. But clearly the focus is on Stewart.

Outside of the car, Stewart said he has made "huge gains" from the latest physical therapy sessions. The bone in his right leg continues to heal and strength "is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be."

"I don't know how we could be more prepared honestly than what we are right now."

The injury wasn't Stewart's first in Cup -- in 2006 he suffered a broken shoulder blade after back-to-back crashes at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Earlier in his career, he continued to race midgets despite a broken wrist ("they just taped my hand to the steering wheel," he later explained).

But the broken leg was the first injury to take Stewart completely out of the car.

"That's a level of pain I've never had before," he said. "You'd think having the ability to lie in bed, you'd get comfortable. I've never spent so much time laying in bed feeling uncomfortable in my life."

Although Mark Martin tested for the team during Preseason Thunder in January, Stewart said there is no plan to have Martin -- or any other driver -- standing by in a relief role. Friday's schedule consists of two practice sessions on the 2.5-mile track -- from 5-5:45 p.m. ET and 6:30-7:30 p.m. Both practices are only for Cup drivers competing in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited.

Daytona 500 practices are slated for Saturday -- a two-hour session is scheduled from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and a second practice follows from 1:30 p.m.-3:20 p.m.

"We're not going to need a back-up driver," Stewart said. "I feel good enough that I'm confident that we're not going to have to worry about anything. We've planned for everything that we think might or could go wrong. When I say 'go wrong', it's not anything that's going to take us out of the race car, it's just a matter of making everything as comfortable as possible."


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