With five races to decide the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Watkins Glen couldn't come at a better time for Stewart.
It was a year ago when “date night” for Tony Stewart went terribly wrong.
While racing a Sprint Car at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa on August 5, Stewart collided with another vehicle and broke his right tibia and fibula in the wreck.
Although it was his third racing accident in three weeks, as many times at Stewart had tumbled in the past, his friend and former crew chief Greg Zipadelli never expected his boss would be injured.
“I think me and him and everybody around us didn't think Superman could get hurt,” Zipadelli said after the accident. “This is his day.”
Considering what Stewart endured over the last year, it’s a credit to his resolve that he made it back at all. After winning the Myer’s Brothers Award during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas last December, Stewart offered his raison d’etre:
“People talk about racing as a hobby at certain levels,” Stewart said. “It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. You plan vacations around it. You plan weddings around it. It was a huge change in my lifestyle.
“I went from being in a race car three days a week on the weekends and two nights, maybe three to four night nights during the week to immediately being in a bed and not being able to move.”
People talk about racing as a hobby at certain levels. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.
Back in the saddle
After three surgeries months of rehab, Stewart, 43, returned to Sprint Cup action in time for Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway in February. The three-time NASCAR champion acknowledged that he didn’t expect to be back to normal for a while and only “70-percent healed” for the Daytona 500.
He was right. Although Daytona isn’t an accurate barometer to judge talent – Stewart was wrecked in the Sprint Unlimited and finished 35th in the Daytona 500. His results at Phoenix and Las Vegas, 16th and 33rd, respectively, were equally lackluster. It wasn’t until his top fives at Bristol and Fontana that something resembling the old Smoke reappeared.
When he won the pole at Texas on April 4 and led 74 laps – Stewart’s first time at the point since his return to competition – his program appeared to be back on track. With his fourth top 10 of the year in the following race at Darlington the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team had climbed into the top 12 for the first time all season.
But Stewart’s headway seemed to stall after that and two crashes – at Talladega and Sunday at Pocono -- have since impeded his progress in the point standings.
During a teleconference last month, Stewart admited he still "deals with pain every day".
"But that's something that's not even going to probably go away by the end of the year," Stewart said. "The reality of it is there might be a point where it will never totally go away, but it doesn't keep me from doing what I love to do.
"I don't feel pain in the race car. I haven't from Daytona on through even this past weekend. So I know that's probably around 3% of my week that I spend in the race car, but as long as that 3% is comfortable and I can enjoy doing what I'm doing, I can deal with the pain the other 97% of the week."
The reality of it is there might be a point where it will never totally go away, but it doesn't keep me from doing what I love to do.
On the rebound
Since Texas, he has led just three times for a total of 28 laps. He’s scored three additional top 10s, but hasn’t posted a top-five since Auto Club Speedway on March 23. While his average start of 15.8 is the best it’s been since 2010, Stewart’s average finish of 18.6 has never been lower. Currently, his average finish on intermediate tracks in 2014 is 17.4.
And he hasn’t won – unless you count the Sprint Car race on July 18 at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Mich.
But if there’s a place where Stewart can rebound, it would be this weekend’s venue – Watkins Glen. Stewart leads the Sprint Cup Series with five wins, seven top fives and 10 top 10 finishes in 14 starts. His average qualifying effort of 6.3 also tops the tour. Brad Keselowski edges Stewart out for top finish – 6.5 with Marcos Ambrose a close second at 6.8.
Still, it would be hard to bet against Stewart come Sunday.