Sunday May 29th, 2016 1:35PM

Stewart anxious for Friday's return to racing

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
Related Articles
  Contact Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, FL (AP) - The countdown clock for Tony Stewart's return to racing is no longer at months, weeks or even days.

The three-time NASCAR champion was scheduled to be back in a race car Friday for the first time since he broke his right leg in August. Six months and three surgeries after that sprint car crash, Stewart felt a little bit like a kid getting ready for his first race.

"I'm thinking in hours. It's been a long time since August 5," Stewart said Thursday at Daytona 500 media day. "Normally, we're talking about the off season, it seems like it flies by. But this has been the slowest off season I've ever had. I'm ready to get doing something again."

He gets his chance Friday with two practice sessions totaling 105 minutes at Daytona International Speedway. His first race is Saturday night in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.

If he was worried about his return, Stewart didn't let on. Although he said his leg, which required an aluminum rod to be inserted for stability, is only 65 percent healed, Stewart believes his race team had thought of everything to ensure he'll be comfortable in the No. 14 Chevrolet.

Stewart-Haas Racing addressed the cockpit of the car, and new teammate Kevin Harvick ordered Stewart a special pad that hangs off the steering wheel and prevents his knees from banging into the steering column.

"We've tried to think of absolutely anything that could be a problem," Stewart said. "Our therapy has been going really well, and in the last few weeks, we've made huge gains. I don't know how we could be more prepared than what we are right now.

"The perfect scenario: everything would be healed 100 percent and we wouldn't be talking about it. But the bone is still about 65-percent healed right now. But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be."

Few competitors thought Stewart would have any difficulty in his return.

Winner of three championships and 48 races at NASCAR's highest level, Stewart has proven his entire career to be competitive in any vehicle he drives.

"I think Tony has less challenges because he's more talented," said Denny Hamlin, who struggled all last season with back pain after missing almost five full races with a fractured vertebra. "He's shown he wins in everything he gets in, so I think not being in the car for him, although it's been for a longer period of time that I was out, it will come relatively easy."

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon wondered if Stewart's biggest hurdle would not be physical but rather overcoming any engineering advancements that have been made since he was injured. But judging by Stewart's appearances - he's lost roughly 20 pounds since the accident - Gordon wondered if Stewart might be feeling pretty good these days.

"He might be in better shape now than he's ever been because of the physical therapy," Gordon said. "I haven't asked him what it's like to push on the gas pedal and if there's pain involved, and there are certainly going to be some challenges. But it's Tony Stewart. I'm not overly concerned with the challenges that he's going to have from being able to either withstand some pain or get up to speed and be a fierce competitor."

Brad Keselowski broke his left ankle in a crash during testing in 2011. He was injured on a Wednesday, refused to not race that weekend, and won that Sunday at Pocono. He admitted Thursday it was difficult to stay in the car for an entire race and credits Stewart for coming back before he's fully healed.

"I know it won't be easy at all. His injury is certainly a lot more significant than mine," Keselowski said. "I don't know how he's going to do it, but he's done a lot of other great things in his career and if he's able to come back out and run full races and be competitive, I think that would probably go right up there with his greatest accomplishments."

Clint Bowyer was one of the few drivers who took a humorous approach to Stewart's return.

"He was pretty damn good before. I hope it slowed him down - just a couple tenths, you know?" Bowyer joked. "Give us a couple tenths."

WDUN will carry live coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited from Daytona International Speedway Saturday night beginning at 7 pm on both AM 550 and 102.9 FM.
© Copyright 2016
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
2014 Top 10: Looking back at the top sports stories of the year
It was another year for the record books in 2014, mostly for the right reasons -- state championships, new challenges and new stars taking their turn to shine. But there were also plenty of big stories that reminded us that sports -- like life -- isn
11:55PM ( 1 year ago )
NASCAR K&N Pro Series schedules set for 2015
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - NASCAR announced recently the 2015 schedules for its top developmental regional touring series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
2:00PM ( 1 year ago )
Lanierland boys final: Johnson makes history with win over Red Elephants <b> (VIDEO) </b>
Ever the aggressor on the court, Johnson
8:55AM ( 1 year ago )
Pits will be tight as Chili Bowl entry count hits 316
TULSA, OK - The 29th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals presented by General Tire is on track to be a record smashing event, with the entry count climbing over the 300 mark for the first time to 316 entries confirming 303 drivers for the indoor spectacular happening Tuesday, January 13 through Saturday, January 17 at the Tulsa Expo Center in Tulsa, OK.
9:59AM ( 1 year ago )
Falcons fire Mike Smith after 2nd straight losing season
Mike Smith's status as the winningest coach in Falcons history wasn't enough to save his job. Owner Arthur Blank said he fired Smith on Monday because in his "heart of hearts" he didn't believe Smith could take the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
7:58PM ( 1 year ago )
New promoters in place for 2015 at Senoia Raceway
SENOIA, GA - Lease papers have been signed and a team of new promoters is in place for the upcoming stock car racing season at Senoia Raceway in Senoia, GA.
6:00AM ( 1 year ago )
Professional Sports
Garbo, Jr. to compete in NASCAR K&N East with Whelen sponsorship
CHARLOTTE, NC--(BUSINESS WIRE)-- When Marsh Racing and longtime team sponsor Whelen Engineering Company, Inc. got the opportunity to put together a race team for 2015, they looked closely at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
12:00PM ( 1 year ago )
Former NASCAR racer pleads guilty in high-speed chase
12:51PM ( 1 year ago )
Chili Bowl entry list again nearing record 300 mark
TULSA, OK - For the past couple years, the entry list for the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals has flirted with the 300 mark. Once again, the number of teams registering for the indoor Midget event is nearing the three century mark with 285 entries received for the 29th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
11:59AM ( 1 year ago )
Baseball: Panthers, Dragons dominate Region 8-AAA All-Region selections
Region 8-AAA continued to be a major player in Class AAA in 2016 with Jackson County getting within one win of the state championship round.
9:23AM ( 4 hours ago )
Golf: Ralston, Forrester amongst 11 area golfers named All-State
Gainesville's Spencer Ralston was named Class AAAAA boys player of the year, while North Hall's Bartley Forrester was named first team for Class AAAA boys in the 2016 Georgia High School Golf Coaches Association (GHSGCA) All-State team released this week.
By AccessWDUN Staff
9:01AM ( 4 hours ago )
The hype is back at Indy and everyone wants to win the 100th
Tony Kanaan spent the final practice before the Indianapolis 500 talking to the race track. He wanted to be kind to the old lady, to land in her good graces before the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing."
By The Associated Press
9:00AM ( 4 hours ago )
Baseball: 2016 Region 7-AAA All-Region team
After a rebounding season for Region 7-AAA as a whole, the 2016 Region 7-AAA All-Region baseball team was released on Friday.
8:10AM ( 5 hours ago )
Martin: NASCAR HOF class features close connections
For Mark Martin, election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame was an unexpected honor, and it’s just coincidence that the 40-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race-winner has such strong simpatico with his fellow 2017 class members.
By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
8:00AM ( 5 hours ago )