It’s a brilliant blue afternoon in September of 2013, and in the garage at Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR’s last badass is riding a scooter.
Oh, it’s not just any scooter. Tony Stewart, said badass, wouldn’t settle for an off-the-rack model. No, this is a four-wheeler with jacked wheels and a custom neon-orange paint job. He’s even got sponsors and a “Smoke” logo stenciled on the front of it. And Smoke is stuck in it because he’s recovering from a wreck a month earlier that absolutely destroyed his right leg.
Back in August, in a Monday night race in Iowa, Stewart shattered both his tibia and his fibula (the two leg bones below the knee) in a vicious, flipping sprint car wreck. That took him out of his racecar for the rest of the season, but not away from the track.
Relegated to a sooped-up wheelchair, he’s whipping that scooter around as fast as he can, greeting everyone from Ray Evernham to Carl Edwards, staying just a bit ahead of the thronging fans. He stays out as long as he can, but the weariness is evident in his drawn, thinner-than-usual face, and long before the cars get up to speed, he’s left the infield.
But as he’s there, scooting around, all you can think is, Don’t laugh. Do. Not. Laugh. Because even on only one good leg, Smoke will find a way to kill you.
Today, it’s five months later, and Stewart is back behind the wheel of an honest-to-goodness race car. He’s at Daytona International Speedway again, racing for that ever-elusive Daytona 500 title.
After months of physical therapy, at long last he’s back to driving cars at triple-digit speeds. His progress has been painful but constant.
“We’ll judge it Sunday to Sunday,” he told Fox Sports a couple weeks back. “If you had to put it on a chart, it’s a straight line going uphill.”
Good thing. Because sweet heaven, could the sport of NASCAR use him now.
Stewart only missed a little more than a dozen races, but it seems like many more than that. Since he last drove in a points-paying race, NASCAR has undergone upheaval unlike any it’s seen in years, if not decades.
The year 2014 will be a crucial one for NASCAR, and for the first time in nearly two decades, the sport is beginning to fashion an identity without Stewart, one of the final remaining links to its all-out, say-something-crazy, drive-even-crazier past. The events of the last few months have had much to do with that.
Start with “SpinGate,” the alleged conspiracy that sought to put multiple Michael Waltrip Racing drivers into the Chase but fell apart faster than a Sochi hotel. While Stewart was tooling around Richmond on a scooter, MWR may or may not have been scheming to get both Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase in the season’s final regular-season race. When the “conspiracy” unraveled and the last of the lug nuts stopped spinning, the 12-driver Chase suddenly had 13 drivers, and NASCAR had shown itself to be willing to rewrite its own rules at a moment’s notice. It was, to put it politely, not the sport’s finest hour.
And then came the points change. Yet again, NASCAR overhauled its points system, turning an already convoluted championship formula into a flat-out obstacle course. Certainly, Stewart has shown his ability to win with everything on the line; he did so as recently as 2011, when he won a championship in a tiebreaker over Edwards.
The offseason brought changes at Stewart’s race team in-house, with alpha dogs Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch joining up. Busch in particular seemed a surprise, given the long and well-publicized history of fights between him and Stewart. The press conference in which co-owner Gene Haas seemed to indicate he’d signed Busch with little consultation of Stewart (who was dealing with his broken leg) only added to the curious "who's got the wheel?” sense around SHR.
Even so, Tony Stewart will race anyone, anywhere, anytime. Cars, go-karts, toboggans, grocery carts, it doesn’t matter … he’ll race you and he’ll probably beat you. He’s the ultimate wheelman, but he’s now living in an era where “actually driving the car” ranks about fifth, at best, on the list of necessary traits for a NASCAR driver.
You’ve got to be a marketing pitchman to the public, a gladhanding silvertongue to sponsors, a demanding-yet-compassionate father figure to your pit crew, a sunny-day politician to the media, a got-your-back trench warrior to your teammates. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, particularly someone who’s so damn determined to go his own way that he critically injures himself racing in some place called Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Can Stewart meet the challenges ahead of him? Sure, he can meet them. Head-on, and with enough momentum built up to bust right through most of them. It all begins this weekend with the one challenge that’s eluded him: the Daytona 500. He’s admitted that he won’t be 100 percent physically ready for this season to begin, but he’s already 100 percent mentally ready.
“It's not just been a personal thing every day when I get up, it's knowing that everybody is following what we're doing,” he said during a January Daytona test. “When we have these little personal victories, accomplishments of getting healed back up, it's much broader than just what's going on with me, it's affecting a lot more people.”