No looking back: Tony Stewart seems like his old self
Without a wheel being turned in anger yet in 2015, it’s too early to say with any certainty if Tony Stewart truly is back. But the early indications are strong that the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has put two years of hell behind him and is enjoying life again.
And that might pay big dividends on race tracks this year.
During Tuesday’s Stewart-Haas Racing stop on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom, Stewart certainly talked the talk of a man ready, willing and able to be one of the sport’s elite racers again. Whether he can still walk the walk or not will be determined over 36 races this season, but he sure seems like he’s ready.
To recap: In August 2013, Stewart suffered a double-compound fracture of his right leg during a sprint car race in Iowa. Last August, Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during another sprint car race in Upstate New York. Although exonerated of any wrongdoing in the crash, Stewart missed three Sprint Cup races, went winless for the first time in his Cup career and had his lowest points finish ever.
"I’m not happy about the last two years of my life by any means," Stewart said Tuesday.
All of that is history, though. Stewart, who is good at compartmentalizing, swears all the bad moments of the past two years are in the past.
"As soon as the calendar flipped to 2015, I put the rest of it behind me and I’m not looking back," Stewart said. "I’m not looking back at all, I’m looking forward and focused on what we’ve got coming up."
And he’s feeling much better physically as well, thanks to a fourth surgery performed on his right leg last Dec. 1.
"Physically, even after the surgery Dec. 1, this is the best I’ve felt since the accident two years ago," Stewart said.
Like every driver, the great unknown for Stewart is how the lower horsepower, lower downforce 2015 NASCAR rules package will or won’t fit his particular driving style. The 2014 package was a disaster for Stewart but great for his teammate Kevin Harvick, who won the championship with it.
What happens in 2015 is an open question for every driver at the moment.
"I have no idea if it’s going to feel better or worse," Stewart said. "But you know what? I go back to all the years we’ve raced so many different types of cars. You were always having to adapt to it, anyways. So I don’t think this is going to be any different than what we’ve done in the past. It’s just a matter of finding out that feel that we want in the car right away."
SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli is probably Stewart’s closest friend and confidante in the NASCAR garage. Zipadelli said he liked what he’s seen so far in the 2015 edition of Stewart.
"He was joking around back there," Zipadelli said of Stewart. "He seemed to have a little more of the piss and vinegar that the old Tony Stewart had. I talked to him a lot a couple of weeks ago and over the holidays and he seemed very upbeat, very positive.
"I think he got to go have some fun in the offseason. I think his leg — just watching him walk and things — is way better than it’s been for the last two years. With that being said, he’s got a lot to learn to get back out there and get it."
Zipadelli has confidence in Stewart, though.
"A guy with his ability and the talent he has, if he digs down deep enough, he can still do anything he wants."
And if you needed proof Stewart was on his game, it came when a reporter asked the driver if he’s been working out.
"Are you kidding? When have you ever heard me have an exercise program? That’s why we wear black clothes. To make me look slimmer."