Five months and three surgeries after shattering his right leg in a sprint car race, Stewart looked and sounded a lot more like the gritty racer with three Sprint Cup Series championships, displaying the quick-witted personality that has kept reporters and his competition in check for years.
After being sidelined for the final 15 races of 2013, Stewart said his return to Sprint Cup competition in 2014 is on track, even if he isn't during NASCAR's Preseason Thunder test sessions Thursday and Friday.
"We're still on schedule to be (medically) clear the day before (The Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15), so we'll be down here for two days hanging out and watching our teams run," Stewart said.
"Luckily this is a smooth race track; it's not rough and bumpy. If it were Dover, I would be a lot more concerned."
And his health?
"I'm a pretty good [weather] barometer right now," he joked from the rainy speedway. "Seems like if the rain comes or snow or cold comes, I know it right before it changes.
"But," he added, "I feel pretty good. I still have a little ways to go, but we've got four weeks to get ready. Even when we get here in February, it's not going to be 100 percent. Physically, I'm not going to feel 100 percent, but I'll be able to do my job 100 percent -- and that's the main thing."
Stewart said recovery and therapy still make up the bulk of his days, and after days of tiring easily and working through the pain, his stamina is improving. The days of high pain are seldom.
He went home to Indiana during the holidays and plans to attend the Chili Bowl later this month. It's one of Stewart's favorite races to drive, but this year, fellow Sprint Cup driver Kasey Kahne will drive Stewart's car -- then they will raffle it off to raise money for Charlie Dean Leffler, the young son of their late friend and racer, Jason Leffler.
Stewart even says he is optimistic he will do some sprint car racing this season -- he has a sponsor and is preparing the car -- but says it's too early to set any kind of schedule for that.
"The Cup car is the priority right now, and making sure that we're comfortable there," Stewart said. "I'm going to feel 100 percent enough to drive a Cup car; bouncing around in a sprint car is a little different deal. There's not a sense of urgency [to setting that schedule]."
Although Stewart has been able to drive a street car for the past four months, he hadn't sat in his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy until about three weeks ago when he got his seat fitted.
"It felt like an old pair of shoes," said Stewart, a huge grin on his face. "The hard part was they kept telling me I had to get out of it. I wanted to sit in it. I felt like a kid."
Veteran Mark Martin will be testing Stewart's car this preseason. But between the intensive physical therapy and traveling, Stewart has been closely monitoring the situation at his namesake Stewart-Haas Racing operation.
The team has added a fourth driver, Kevin Harvick, to a lineup that includes Stewart, Danica Patrick and another SHR new hire: 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch. And the team shop is expanding accordingly with construction underway on a 125,000 square foot addition.
"I think when it first happened, it was a thrash at first to kind of figure out, okay, how are we going to do this," Stewart said. "But the atmosphere at the shop, we've not seen it.
"I've not seen it the five years I've been there. It's just at a high it's never been at before. We feel like we're actually way ahead of where we were last year this time."
In fact, Stewart said he fully expects at least three of his teams to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, acknowledging that second-year Cup driver Patrick is still navigating a steep learning curve.
And listening to Stewart speak, it was evident that he fully believes in and expects a full recovery and return to form. He is not only determined to get back in the race car at first opportunity, but to immediately position himself as a championship contender.
He kidded that the mental recovery from this injury has been tougher than getting his leg to heal up.
"The hardest part is just not knowing where I'm supposed to be," Stewart said. "I've never had an injury like this so I don't have anything to compare it to."
However, he said, the upside of the mandated down time has been moments with family, friends and fans to reflect and project -- something he rarely bothered to do before.
"It's pretty cool to finally have time a little bit to reflect back on what we've done our career," Stewart said. "It's neat to talk about what we did in the past, but I'm excited to talk about what hopefully we can do in the future now."
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