Tony Stewart wasn't dressed in his typical post-race attire. Instead, a black dress shirt and shorts replaced the fire suit to which he was accustomed.
The black boot, carefully keeping his surgically repaired right leg stable, was the giveaway, a silent acknowledgement to the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion's current status.
Paused on pit road, seated in a black motorized kart adorned with sponsor decals, Stewart seemed a bit weary, but otherwise happy to be back at the race track.
"I spent the first two and a half weeks laying on my back," Stewart said moments after speaking quietly with teammate Ryan Newman, "so this has been a long week."
Stewart, 42, suffered a broken tibia and fibula in a sprint car crash Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He is not scheduled to resume competing in the Sprint Cup Series until the 2014 season. In his absence, veteran Mark Martin has taken over the driving duties of the team's No. 14 Chevrolet, after one-race stints by Max Papis at Watkins Glen and Austin Dillon at Michigan. Dillon will also drive the No. 14 car at Talladega.
Hospitalized for one week, Stewart underwent two surgeries to repair his right leg. He began making public appearances before this past weekend's race, beginning with a Sept. 3 press conference at the Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C.
Sponsor gatherings followed prior to the trek to Richmond International Raceway, his first trip to a race track since being wheeled out in the back of an ambulance five weeks earlier.
"Two appearances and some other stuff going on," he said, "including the (press conference) on Tuesday.
"It's been five straight days of being busy ? something that hasn't happened for a month. So it's taken some getting used to."
Stewart-Haas Racing has put at least one driver in the 10-race playoff since Stewart became a co-owner in 2009.
Newman, who initially failed to earn one of the two Wild Card spots available in the Chase, got a reprieve late Monday night when NASCAR officials docked all three Michael Waltrip Racing teams 50 driver points for attempting to "manipulate the outcome of the race."
It will be Newman's fifth Chase appearance.
In 2011, Stewart won his third Cup title, and the first for SHR.
His injury, however, took him out of this year's postseason picture, and Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Danica Patrick has managed only one top-10 finish in this year's 26 races.
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