For the first time since his sprint car accident that injured his right leg, Tony Stewart has broken his silence.
Oprah, having “at least one hot nurse,” weight loss, the media, sprint car safety, Kurt Busch’s new fourth team and his own recovery were all topics of conversation.
“Oddly enough I miss you guys, which tells me I’m not feeling good,” Stewart told reporters at the Stewart-Haas Racing shop in Kannapolis, N.C. to open the press conference.
Since his accident in Iowa several weeks ago, Stewart has been largely bed-ridden, watching in his words, “Oprah and way too much other TV” and beginning the recovery process after his pair of surgeries.
The first bit of news: Stewart hopes to be back in a race car by early February, ahead of the 2014 Daytona 500, but ideally after testing.
“Early February. That’s what they’re looking at,” Stewart said. “It’s something that’s part of this process. We do not want to do something too early. Have to try to guard against setbacks. It’s going according to schedule.
Asked later whether interim driver Mark Martin could stay on to test if Stewart isn’t ready in January, Stewart replied: “I’m all for Mark doing all the testing he wants to do! It’s like watching paint dry. If that scenario happens I hope he’d be willing to do that. You couldn’t ask for someone better. He’d pay more attention than I would.”
Stewart said almost from the off that you can’t be afraid to miss out on other opportunities; in his case, the sprint car racing he so loves to do on weekends he’s not at a NASCAR track.
“Bobby Labonte was riding his bike and missed a race. It’s just life, guys. People miss a race. You’ve gotta live life. You can’t spend your whole life guarding against something that could happen. We’re all here a short amount of time in the big picture. We don’t want to guard against this, or that. If I didn’t wear a helmet or seatbelts, then that would be dangerous.”
The biggest news from a team standpoint since Stewart’s injuries, other than his injury replacements (Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin), has been the addition of Kurt Busch in a fourth Stewart-Haas entry for 2014.
Stewart scoffed at the suggestion that he or the team “deceived” Ryan Newman – as had been suggested by former driver Kyle Petty – and said his only concern throughout the process was the time needed to put together the crew and equipment needed for a fourth car.
“It wasn’t as dramatic as (Gene) made it sound,” Stewart said. “When Gene came to me about the fourth team, he told me on a Monday, then Thursday they had a contract ready. The biggest thing was Greg Zipadelli saying we could do this and getting it done in a time frame. To find someone like Kurt and make it happen has really been encouraging to me as his partner. It was just me getting caught up. I wanted to make sure we had the time. We have a lot to get done in a short amount of time. It may not be fun and may not be easy. That was what made me give 100 percent blessing. We never argued about it.”
One other thing Stewart let slip in the press conference was the unintentional confirmation of Rodney Childers as Kevin Harvick’s crew chief for 2014. Harvick joins Stewart-Haas as Newman’s replacement in the renumbered No. 4 Chevrolet.
“Welcome to, ‘Tony doesn’t remember protocol’” Stewart joked to the team’s PR manager.
Besides addressing the on-track items and his injury recovery process, Stewart was back to cracking jokes as the press conference continued. The following was his response when asked the one thing he missed at the tracks.
“The hot girls, no doubt,” he said. “When you’re laying in bed, there’s not much traffic. You know I thought that with three Cup championships, an IndyCar championship, a USAC Triple Crown, that I could surely get one hot nurse, and instead I got Eddie Jarvis to take care of me.”
There were other sidebars to the press conference – more on the fourth team, and more on sprint car safety – that Stewart addressed. We’ll hit those in separate posts.