DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart is 20 pounds lighter and has a titanium rod in his surgically repaired right leg.
As far as he's concerned, those are the only major changes since he broke two bones in his leg in an August sprint-car crash. So when the green flag drops Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway for his first race since the accident, Stewart believes it will be the same old "Smoke" behind the wheel.
If he had any doubts — and he's insisted he doesn't — they were alleviated by 24 smooth laps in the first of two Friday night practice sessions for the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
All told, Stewart ran 50 laps — 125 miles — around Daytona.
"There's zero percentage of pain in the car. That was nice," Stewart said. "I thought we would have some kind of ache or pain, but it was like putting on an old pair of shoes again."
Stewart, who does not have a backup driver at Daytona, has not raced in more than six months. It's an unheard of amount of time off for a driver who makes his money racing in NASCAR yet crisscrossed the country cramming 50 or more weeknight events into his year-round schedule.
So he found himself clock-watching Friday afternoon, anxious to put his firesuit back on and head into the garage for the first time this season. A notorious late-arriver to his car, Stewart showed up to the garage stall for the No. 14 Chevrolet almost 20 minutes early. He was in his seat, buckled in and helmet on, with almost 10 minutes to just sit and think about his first few laps.
"Every five minutes, I was looking at the clock. That's a long time to be staring at the clock," said Stewart, who joked he told new crew chief Chad Johnston not to expect to see him at the car so early moving forward. "That's not going to be a habit."
Fans above his garage stall cheered Stewart's arrival, and he was greeted by a sizeable media contingent at the car. Standing quietly in front of the car was his father, Nelson, who said the scene "almost reminds me of when he ran the (Indianapolis) 500 for the first time."
It was a mundane day of practice, but Stewart didn't mind the attention.
"Today in the big picture was just another practice day, but obviously it was a little bigger than normal," he admitted.
So relieved at how smooth it went, the old Stewart quickly returned as he felt the tug from nearby dirt track Volusia Speedway Park.
"If I didn't think that Greg Zipadelli would absolutely kill me, I would probably want to go race at Volusia tonight. It felt that good," he said. "I don't think Zippy would be the only guy — I think the entire organization would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the front stretch just so I couldn't go."
Instead, walking with a slight limp, he headed inside his team hauler to "do what I always do — eat some animal crackers and have a Coke."
Stewart's layoff was certainly difficult, enhanced by the pain from his broken leg. He had two surgeries for the breaks, then a third to treat an infection. He was flat on his back, confined to the first-floor bedroom of his longtime business manager's house, where he was forced to lay with his leg elevated above his heart. When there was Stewart-Haas Racing business to address, team personnel did it at his bedside.