|Photo: Bob Leverone|
Coming off what he called “the worst two years in the history of me,” Tony Stewart said Tuesday that he is on the road to regaining both his physical and mental health, and ready to retake his traditional place at the front of the NASCAR pack.
A shattered right leg suffered in an August 2013 Sprint Car crash in Oskaloosa, Iowa impacted Stewart’s performance for a time. A horrifying accident at New York’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park on August 9, 214 that saw driver Kevin Ward, Jr. die after climbing from his disabled vehicle and being struck by Stewart put the former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion into an emotional tailspin from which he has admittedly struggled to recover.
Time heals all wounds, however, and Day Two of NASCAR’s annual preseason Media Tour featured a rejuvenated Stewart crediting friends and fans for playing a major role in his recovery.
“My leg is healing very well right now, and my head got a good break during the offseason,” said Stewart in an exclusive interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody. “Typically, I go to a race in Fort Wayne, Ind., between Christmas and New Year’s. I actually stayed home from that this year, then left on the second of January and went to Yuma, Ariz., for the Winter Heat Sprint Car races.
“That was the first time I had been back to a Sprint Car race (since the Canandaigua accident),” said Stewart. “I didn’t even think about it until I got there, but it was the first time I had seen those guys. It was good to be there. I had a lot of fun working with Steve Kinser on his car, then I went straight to the Chili Bowl and spent my time driving a (track preparation) tractor at 1.6 mph for the week.
“I enjoyed it,” he laughed. “I probably could have had a few adult beverages and watched the racing like everyone else, but if I’m not going to be racing, (I would rather) have a job like that where every night, 85 guys are relying on me to do a good job and give them a good race track. It’s a lot of pressure, but I thrive on stuff like that. It was something I really looked forward to.”
Stewart said the reception he received in Arizona caught him by surprise.
“I didn’t realize that I hadn’t seen any of those people since everything happened last year,” he said. “Once I got there and started seeing and talking to everyone, it was so nice. Everyone said how happy they were to have me there, and how they had been thinking about me all summer.
“That meant more to me than I could possibly have imagined. I hadn’t anticipated that aspect of it, but it made a huge impact. The same thing happened in Tulsa the next weekend, with a different set of friends and people that I’m used to being around.
“Those were two really big weeks for my head and my heart, and I’ve had a great 2015 so far. I’m hoping to carry that on.”
Stewart said he was also humbled by the positive reception he received from NASCAR fans when he returned to competition at Atlanta Motor Speedway in late August.
“It helped,” he said. “In a major way, it helped. Sometimes you realize the impact you make as a driver, but you don’t really realize the impact that you have on people as a person. I hope the fans realize the impact they’ve had on me, helping me feel better about everything.
“Racing is a huge family,” said Stewart. “It doesn’t matter if you’re watching on TV, listening on the radio, or if you’re a car owner or driver; everyone is in this family together.”
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion also displayed a bit of his customary swagger, promising to “put on a show” at next month’s season-opening Daytona 500.
“I have every intention of running up front this year,” he grinned. “I usually take it easy for the first two-thirds of the race, then make my way forward. But that’s going out the window this year.
“I’m feeling racy, and I’m ready to get out there and make my name known again.”