BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Averaging a fourth-place finish over the past three weeks of racing, which includes his first win of 2013 and his re-insertion into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup picture, by all means Tony Stewart should have had a noticeable spring in his step when he set foot in the media center at Michigan International Speedway on Friday afternoon.
The pep was missing, but who could blame him?
In addition to crashing his car in the opening practice session Friday morning and being forced to go to a backup, Stewart had to swallow the tough reality that his close friend and former roommate Jason Leffler had passed away Wednesday from injuries sustained in a sprint-car racing accident at Bridgeport Speedway, a dirt track in Swedesboro, N.J.
"I've known Jason a long time; we grew up racing together," Stewart said. "I knew him as a friend, as a roommate, as a teammate. I know that he loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a race car. He was a racer; he didn't care what he raced, when he raced. That's all he wanted to do was be in a race car, and it was fun to have a roommate like that. It's just a reminder of how dangerous our sport is."
The news of Leffler's passing was a sobering notice that despite the advancements the sport has introduced to maintain safety for everyone involved at the track, accidents can happen.
"We've had a lot of safety innovations over the last 15 years since I've been in Cup," Stewart said. "It's just proof that I don't know that they'll ever get to the stage where anybody is totally immune to getting hurt in a race car. It's the scenario that we're in and there isn't anybody that gets behind the wheel that doesn't know that going in."
The situation that the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet and his team now find themselves in with unexpectedly having to mourn the loss of a friend will make it difficult to focus on the task at hand, as a visibly shaken Stewart focused most of his press conference on honoring the memory of Leffler. However, the fact remains that Stewart has momentum on his side right now and can't afford to take his foot off the gas, as a nine-race stretch from Las Vegas to Darlington without a top-10 put him in a deep hole.
"I feel like our organization is gaining on it. I've been really encouraged the last couple of weeks and the last three weeks we've made big gains," said the three-time Sprint Cup champion. "Until I had the problem today, we were third on the sheet at the time that I crashed the car, so I feel encouraged that we're gaining ground on it and starting to get back to form."
He was 62 points out of 10th place in the points standings after a 15th-place finish at Darlington, but a seventh-place finish at Charlotte, a victory at Dover and a fourth-place finish last week at Pocono have him just 17 points out of that crucial spot. Despite having just one win at Michigan that came 13 years ago, Stewart does fare reasonably well here, with 19 top-10s in 28 starts. It's also just one of five tracks that he has double-digit top-fives (11).
"This weekend I was really anxious to get on track to see where we were. The last two weeks, we had the advantage of having tests at Pocono and Dover but we didn't do that for here, so I wanted to see how we'd come out of the box here," Stewart said. "I was pretty encouraged by what I was seeing so far during the day, so I feel like we're gaining on it. I don't know where we need to be yet, but we definitely have made big gains so I'm pretty encouraged by that."
Stewart ended up 35th on the leaderboard for the opening practice, with a best speed of 194.963 mph. After wrecking his first car, he spent the rest of the session focusing on figuring out how to get around the corners.
"I think as the session went on, the track got more grip to it. Pretty slippery at the beginning 'til it started getting some rubber on the track," he said. "It seems that watching the times, obviously we had a problem and I got loose and caught (the wall) then just ran the race track trying to get around the corner it seemed the longer the session went, the better the track got."
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