There are many race car drivers that simply pass through the sport of NASCAR.
Tony Stewart isn’t one of them.
On Thursday, Stewart was honored for his contributions to stock car racing with the National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award.
In addition to the three-time Sprint Cup champion’s dedication as a driver, he was recognized for his continual impact as a team and track owner as well as his philanthropic endeavors.
But even Stewart didn’t anticipate the accolade. Before his name was called, Stewart was texting his pilots for wheels up to Charlotte.
“I thought I was just getting a free dinner here and a trip to bring (crew chief Matt) Borland out here to get his award,” Stewart said. “But it was very unexpected, that’s for sure. I’m very humbled by it. I’m not sure I deserve it. What an honor. I’m very glad I came out now, for sure.
“It caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for anything like this, that’s for sure. It made my whole week – my whole week.”
Stewart, who has been sidelined since breaking his tibia and fibula on Aug. 5 during a Sprint Car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway, walked up to the stage without his cane. Despite three surgeries to repair his right leg since the accident, the 42-year-old racer expects to return to action at Daytona International Speedway in February. But with the bone only expected to be “70-percent healed” before Speedweeks, Stewart doesn’t believe the doctors will allow him in a race car before then.
“I’m really confident about Daytona now,” Stewart said. “The (last) three weeks in particular, the therapist has said we really turned a corner. That was good when we had that conversation (Wednesday) after therapy. He’s really happy, and he’s the one I’ve got to judge it off of.
“I know how it feels, but he knows the steps we’ve got to go through. So he’s excited about it. I’m excited about it. My mind’s ready to go race. My leg needs a couple more weeks, but I’m ready. Especially the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve got my energy back. My appetite’s back, so that’s normally a good sign that you’re getting back to normal.”
Stewart has lost 16 pounds since August. In the early stages of his recovery, he existed mainly on ice chips. “They couldn’t bring ice fast enough,” Stewart said. “I’ve never seen anybody eat so much ice in my life. Food didn’t taste good, didn’t smell good. Ice, for some reason, was like ice cream.”
Although Stewart had a setback in September, he’s back to three days of therapy a week – primarily strength training and working on the range of motion with his foot and ankle. For balance, Stewart’s been working with a stability ball. He calls it his “weakest area right now” and says using his foot to mash the gas will be the biggest concern. Still, in the last three weeks, Stewart’s doctors believe he’s made significant progress.
If competition becomes too much for Stewart at Daytona, he can rely on Mark Martin to stand in. Martin filled in for Stewart in the No. 14 Chevy during most of his recovery time this season.
“That’s the great thing about having Mark Martin at Stewart-Haas Racing right now – not just having him as a coach, but it something happens, if we need some help during a session, he’s the perfect guy to put in there,” Stewart said. “He’s not someone who you would even remotely question having the ability to get in there. So it’s a huge peace of mind.
“I don’t think we’ll have to do that but if we’re presented with a scenario like that we have something we can do.”
Over lunch, Kasey Kahne expressed the void left by Stewart’s absence on the track during the last four months. The two racers share a love of open-wheel racing in addition to their day job in stock cars.
“I miss Tony a lot,” Kahne said. “He’s a big part of NASCAR. I think the fans miss him, too.”
Stewart was humbled by the sentiment – and the outpouring of support he’s received during his time away from the track.
“I missed it as bad as it missed me, I guess, if that’s the case,” Stewart said. “Talking to Jimmie (Johnson) and talking to guys after the weekend or during the weekend – I send Matt Kenseth texts or talking to Ryan (Newman) or Danica (Patrick) – they want to know how you’re doing first, but then it’s ‘we miss you. We miss you being here.’ When your peers say that, that means the most to you.”
Still, it’s been difficult for Stewart to go cold turkey without racing. After accepting the Myer’s Brothers Award – named for Billy and Bobby, who both died driving stock cars in the 1950s – he exchanged stories with the Myers family.
“People talk about racing as a hobby at certain levels,” Stewart said. “It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. You plan vacations around it. You plan weddings around it. It was a huge change in my lifestyle. I went from being in a race car three days a week on the weekends and two nights, maybe three to four nights during the week, to immediately being in a bed and not being able to move.
“Slowly, as we’re getting better, we’re getting pieces of that puzzle back. We’re still missing the one piece to the puzzle that I love the most. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not that far away.”