The three-time NASCAR champion wound up 35th in the season-opening race, but he logged enough laps during Speedweeks that he feels good going into the upcoming stretch of seven consecutive races. Stewart missed the final 15 races last year after breaking his leg in two places during a sprint car crash in Iowa.
His first time back in a race car was Feb. 14, the day before he competed — and was crashed out of — the exhibition Sprint Unlimited. He also raced in the Budweiser Duel before the 500, giving him 672 miles of racing in three events.
Stewart goes to Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway “a lot more confident than I was before we got to Daytona.”
“I think having all the races that we ran, and actually getting in a crash, while not a great thing, allowed me to sort of test my leg and it felt good,” Stewart said in a Stewart-Haas Racing team release. “There have been some little things that have felt a little different, but for the most part, it’s felt like an old pair of tennis shoes that you’re just comfortable with. I think the whole time in Daytona exceeded my expectations of what I hoped it would be like.”
But the 500 itself was a letdown for SHR.
Stewart had the engine issue and Danica Patrick was involved in a crash and finished 40th. It left only Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, the two newcomers to the organization, in contention for a solid finish and both had difficulties at the end. Busch wound up 21st and Harvick was involved in the final accident of the race and finished a team-best 13th.
Stewart said Sunday’s race at Phoenix will be a better indicator of where the team is than Daytona, one of only four restrictor-plate races on the schedule.
“Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing,” Stewart said, referring to the necessary teamwork and drafting. “What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”
He likes his chances at Phoenix, where he has one win, eight top-fives and 12 top-10s in 23 career starts. He’s completed all but 14 of 7,257 laps on the 1-mile oval.
But PIR is also the place that pushed Stewart into becoming a full-time race car driver in 1993. Still working eight-hour days at $5-an-hour at a machine shop in Columbus, Ind., Stewart headed west to run USAC Silver Crown season-opening Copper World Classic. He qualified second to Davey Hamilton, then led 31 of 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss.
Stewart earned $3,500 that day — a payout that convinced him running the Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation that year sounded a lot better than returning to the machine shop.
He never looked back, learning how to adapt in every kind of car he drove out of “fear that I’m going to have to get a real job if I’m not successful.
“To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it’s the place where my career came full-circle,” he said.