No smokescreen: Tony Stewart’s rivals really believe in him

Tony Stewart hasn't raced since breaking his right leg last August.

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Tony Stewart is a complicated guy in a sport filled with complicated guys.

He is one of NASCAR’s biggest stars at a time when the sport is working overtime to reinvent itself and rebuild its flagging popularity.

He is hot-tempered, frequently sarcastic to the point of being caustic, and rarely suffers fools gladly, especially those ink-stained wretches in the media that he spars with on a regular basis.

He has raised millions of dollars for charities over the years and helps save stray animals.

He is a successful entrepreneur, championship race-team owner and philanthropist.

He has a pet pig named Porkchop, a titanium rod in his right leg where pieces of bone are missing and a competitive streak most civilians could never fathom.

His success in dirt cars, IndyCars, sports cars and stock cars suggests he is one of the top drivers of his generation and, quite likely, one of the all-time greats.

And Friday at Daytona International Speedway, Tony Stewart will do laps in a race car for the first time since suffering a double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car race more than six months ago.

By his own admission, Stewart’s wounded leg is only about 65 percent healed and he has no idea exactly how his return will go, whether he will return to form and go on to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, or whether he’ll aggravate the injury and suffer a painful setback.

But this much is certain: Stewart wants to race again, maybe more than he’s ever wanted to race before.

So when practice opens later today for Saturday night’s 75-lap Sprint Unlimited non-points race, Stewart will be as ready as he can be under the circumstances. And he will concentrate on getting his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet up to speed as soon as possible and sorting through little details to make his cockpit as comfortable as possible. He’ll have time to contemplate his emotions later.

"We’ll get right back to business right away and we’ll think about it after the session is over," Stewart said.

This much is certain, though: Stewart’s peers expect him to return to form, and believe he could make a serious run for another title.

"I knew Tony was a pretty intense guy but we went to a Jimmy John’s (sponsor) event and we’re coming home Monday. He got on that plane and he was like a crazed lunatic," said Kevin Harvick, one of Stewart’s closest friends and now a teammate at SHR. "You could see that look in his eye. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to … race!’ Just that look in his eye. I knew he was a pretty intense person but I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’"

Six-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson certainly isn’t taking Stewart lightly in terms of being a competitive threat.

Stewart donating custom scooter to Darrell Gwynn Foundation

"Tony’s a guy that when he’s motivated, he can do anything," said Johnson. "And his motivation and desire to get in the car is probably higher than it’s been since he was a little kid, so it could be really dangerous for all of us, you know what I mean?"

"You’ll watch him drive out there and he’ll be happy again," said Kurt Busch, once a bitter rival of Stewart’s but now a valued teammate. "He’s going to be the same old Tony, like we never missed him from before."

As returns go, the Sprint Unlimited is a good race for Stewart to start with. It’s only 75 laps, the field is just 18 cars instead of the normal 43 for a points race, and the 2.5-mile Daytona oval isn’t especially tough physically. Sterner tests will come at early-season races at places like Phoenix, Bristol and Martinsville, which are more physically demanding and require greater use of the right foot to push down and lift off the accelerator, and at some tracks, use the brakes as well.

Will Stewart’s return be easy? No.

Will Stewart’s return prove successful? Time will tell.

Photos: NASCAR Media Day at Daytona

But if peer reaction is any indication, the answer is a resounding "yes."

"There’s certainly going to be some challenges," said four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "But he’s Tony Stewart. I’m not overly concerned with the challenges that he’s going to have from being able to either withstand some pain or get up to speed and be a fierce competitor."

Harvick, one of the favorites to capture this year’s championship, thinks he has a pretty good idea of where Stewart’s head is at these days.

"I know how excited I am getting in a race car," Harvick said. "I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines for months and not being able to get back in the car and put all those crazy thoughts out of your head — if you’d be able to race again, what’s it feel like, is it going to hurt? Just putting all those things to rest for him is going to be great. If anything is sore or hurts, you’ll never hear about it, because he’s so excited to get back in a race car that he can’t hardly stand it."