Tony Stewart drove a race car for the first time since Aug. 5, 2013, as the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion took part in an uneventful – and pain-free – 45-minute opening practice session for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
And when he got out of the car Stewart was all smiles, having passed a critical test at nearly 200 miles per hour.
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Stewart, who suffered a double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa last year, pulled his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet out of the garage at 4:58 p.m. ET and was on track for more than half of the 45-minute session for the exhibition race.
"I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger a deal than that," Stewart said. "That’s the good part of it. I didn’t think it would just blend in like it did. It just kind of felt like any other day at the office. Once we got off of pit road and got going and actually got in the pack there, you forgot about the other stuff and went back to work. Just got back in the swing of things."
Still, it was a big relief for Stewart.
"Especially not having any pain afterwards," Stewart said. "And not having any pain driving, that’s a big weight off our shoulders. That’s the only thing we couldn’t answer to you guys was, what’s it going to feel like after being in the car? Unless after adrenaline wears off tonight at 9 o’clock I start getting sore, it feels really good. Much better than I thought it would."
During practice, Stewart immediately got up to speed and had no issues.
When Stewart pulled into the garage mid-session for adjustments, he stayed in the car. "I’m good," Stewart said over the radio when asked by crew chief Chad Johnston if he wanted to get out.
Stewart’s best lap was 197.377 mph, good for 10th-best in the session. Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the board at 198.421 mph, while Danica Patrick was 11th.
The final Happy Hour session was also uneventful for Stewart.
Earlier in the week, Stewart estimated his right leg was only 65 percent healed.
But tonight he was overjoyed to be back. In fact, he was ready to go down the road and race on the dirt at nearby Volusia Speedway.
"If I didn’t think Greg Zipadelli (SHR Competition Director) would absolutely kill me tonight I would probably want to go race at Volusia tonight," said Stewart. "It felt that good. I don’t think Zippy would be the only guy. I think the entire organization here would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the frontstretch so I couldn’t leave."