Out of a wheelchair, off his crutches and only in the last week or so walking without the use of a cane, Stewart still hasn’t totally settled back into his usual routine since breaking his right leg in an Aug. 5 sprint car crash. He’s living on his own again, but his most recent digs were on the second floor, and leaving the house each day required a thorough mental checklist.
”I have a huge appreciation for just daily things that I can’t do now,” he said. ”It’s like I have to plan, I have to think about stuff. When I go to leave, I don’t want to have to go back up those steps. Before I get to the end of the hallway, I make sure I have everything I need before I get down that flight of steps.”
Being out of a race car for more than four months now has given the three-time NASCAR champion a new outlook on just about everything.
On pace to run more than 100 races this year before the injury, Stewart instead spent almost a week in a hospital following the accident in Iowa. He spent another week in bed with his leg immobilized, and was essentially confined to the home of his business manager for about a month. Stewart needed an ambulance to transport him to doctor appointments, daily tasks such as bathing were a chore, and the busiest man in racing suddenly had nothing but free time on his hands.
”I think it’s very easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on, just daily stuff being a distraction,” he said. ”When you have all that taken away from you, your daily activity becomes a lot more subtle and you appreciate it all a lot more. Not only Cup racing, but everything that I do each day, I think about it different than I did before.”
A third surgery in October to address an infection was a setback Stewart wasn’t expecting, and also a wake-up call. He’d been pushing himself from the moment he’d been cleared to leave the house in early September, and tried to enjoy his time at the race track as a spectator and driver coach to Stewart-Haas Racing’s Danica Patrick.
But when he landed back in the hospital, he was reminded of advice he received from Brian Vickers, who missed 25 races in 2010 because of blood clots.
”Brian Vickers gave me the best piece of advice that I couldn’t use. He says to enjoy your time off. You’re not going to get to do what you want to do in racing so just enjoy your time off,” Stewart said. ”The problem was I wasn’t able to get out of bed for the first two weeks. I kept that in mind the whole time.”
So Stewart skipped the NASCAR weekend in Phoenix earlier this month and attended the World of Outlaws World Finals at Charlotte for the first time as a team owner.
”In all the years I’ve had my dirt track teams, I’ve never been to the last race of the year with any of them. Never been able to walk through and thank the guys for their hard work,” he said. ”I got to do that. I won’t get to do that again. I got to take Brian’s advice and actually apply it to something.”
Still planning to be back in the car for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, Stewart is skipping any normal semblance of a driver offseason to focus on the expansion at Stewart-Haas Racing.
While most of his peers will be vacationing and enjoying time off, he’s committed to grueling rehabilitation three days a week.
But he also feels a responsibility to be available to Greg Zipadelli, who spent a decade with him as crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing and is now charged with running all four teams at SHR. Zipadelli is overseeing the expansion to four cars, assembling a crew for Kurt Busch’s new team and orchestrating a reorganization that will give Stewart his third crew chief in three years.
Stewart, who jettisoned Darian Grubb immediately after winning the 2011 Sprint Cup title with him, has signed Chad Johnston to replace Steve Addington after two seasons. Stewart acknowledged not being able to be in the car before Daytona to work with Johnston ”is not ideal” but said speaking to his new crew chief daily will help build a rapport.
Still, after working with Zipadelli for 10 years, he’ll be on his third crew chief in six seasons. Is he struggling to recapture something he had with Zippy?
”It’s literally results. I don’t think we were ever on pace to be where we needed to be,” he said. ”It’s a moving target and I don’t think you could bring Ray Evernham back to Jeff (Gordon) and get the same results now. I think it’s a constant moving target. The relationship is one aspect of it, but still the moving target is the technology side of it.
”The more pieces you add to the puzzle, the harder it is to put the puzzle together. When we had two crew chiefs and two drivers, it was at a certain level. And then the third team and now the fourth team. Now you have to make sure, instead of just getting two crew chiefs to communicate, now you have four. The equation gets more complicated.”
So Johnston makes sense in that he’s coming directly from Michael Waltrip Racing, along with Rodney Childers, who will crew chief new SHR driver Kevin Harvick. It will give the team two crew chiefs who have been working side-by-side for several years at a time the organization will desperately need steady leadership.
”I think we have a lot more potential than we’ve ever had,” Stewart said. ”Kevin and I have a great relationship. I’ve not really worked with Kurt before. The first time talking to Kurt, it’s been great so far. Enjoy our conversations. To me, there is potential to take this organization to a level that it just hasn’t had the opportunity to be yet because we’ve been smaller.”