CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When one’s body and mind have been wracked so deeply, can that person return to how things used to be?
Tony Stewart will try.
A sprint car crash two years ago brands his gait, and last year’s sprint car tragedy tortures his spirit. For as much as Stewart wants to look ahead, those moments will remain with him forever.
Still, there’s a time when Stewart must look ahead.
“When they counted down the end of 2014, I was never so happy to see that number go off the calendar,’’ Stewart said. “I’m ready to put the last two years behind me and never look back. I’m going back to being me again.’’
Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s former crew chief, longtime friend and the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing, says he already notices a difference in the 43-year-old racer.
“I see him refreshed,’’ Zipadelli said. “I’ve seen him joke like I haven’t seen in two years. I know for a fact he’s ready to go out and go race. That’s all that man has. That’s what he lives for. So if anybody can do it, if anybody is going to find that inner drive to do it, it’s going to be Tony.’’
Does that mean the three-time champion can claim another title? Or win his first Daytona 500? Or win other races?
He enters this season searching for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 20 months. Stewart managed a top-10 finish in 21.1 percent of his starts last year – a career-worst percentage. He has failed to finish in the top 10 in at least half his starts each of the past three years and four of the last five.
Those are only part of the questions he faces. The bigger questions for many are how he moves on from the incidents he’s had the past two years.
Stewart was contending for a Chase position in 2013 when he severely broke his right leg in a sprint car crash Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He missed the remaining 15 Cup races. He had surgery on the leg in December – his fourth since the crash. Stewart has one final surgery scheduled on the leg after this season to remove a titanium rod.
Stewart was 19th in points last season when he went to compete in a sprint car event Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. After Kevin Ward Jr. bounced off the wall while racing Stewart for position, Ward exited his car and walked down the dirt track. Stewart’s car struck Ward, who died from the injuries. A grand jury refused to indict Stewart in Ward’s death. Stewart missed three races. After his return, he managed one top-10 finish in the final 12 Cup races.
“How could it not change you?’’ teammate Kevin Harvick said of what Stewart experienced the past two years. “You go from a broken leg to a situation you don’t ever want to see anybody have to deal with. I can’t relate to how that affects you mentally. Knowing the type person he is and how much he cares about everything else and having to deal with the situation that he dealt with last time, I know, just looking at him, you could tell it wasn’t right. He wasn’t in a good frame of mind.’’
Harvick also sees the change this year in Stewart, noting that his close friend is “in a good spot.’’
Still, there’s much work for Stewart on the track this season. He never could get the right balance in his car. What worked for Harvick didn’t work as well for Stewart. Instead, Stewart fought a tight race car that wouldn’t obey his commands throughout the season.
“I tried everything I knew last year and I couldn’t make a difference,’’ said Stewart, who has 48 career Cup victories to rank 13th on the all-time series wins list.
The offseason, Stewart said, provided the break the team needed to find what ailed the car. As he enters this year, Stewart was asked if he feels as if he has anything to prove.
“I don’t feel that I have to prove anything to anybody,’’ he said. “It’s more what I want to do, not what I feel I have to show people I can do. I want to be winning races again.’’