Tony Stewart missed most of the last half of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season after crashing a sprint car during a dirt track race in Iowa. While he was on the mend, his Stewart-Haas Racing team didn’t stay idle. They signed new drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and continued preparations for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. As for Stewart, despite two surgeries and a long recovery he is ready to race again starting with next month’s Daytona 500. Stewart met with members of the media Thursday at Daytona as his teams took part in a test for next month’s Daytona 500. Below is a transcript of that meeting.
THE MODERATOR: Tony, welcome back. It's very good to see you here at Daytona International Speedway.
TONY STEWART: Good to be back.
THE MODERATOR: Talk a little bit about what it feels like to be back and be here at Daytona.
TONY STEWART: It would be nice if it was dry right now. But it's Daytona and it's February, and you get this when we come down sometimes. But it's nice to be back at the track, would definitely like to be in a car this week, but we're still on schedule to be clear the day before the Shootout, so we'll be down here for two days hanging out and watching our teams run.
Q. I was at your shop doing interviews right before Christmas, and to a man, your team is ahead of the game from last year, at least that's kind of the indication. How far ahead are you do you think, and with Rodney Childers being there early, how do you hit this time of year early right now?
TONY STEWART: I think they're really ready for the test here, which I think last year we were still scrambling to get parts and pieces, so definitely ahead of the game there. There's a lot of stuff going on at our shop with redoing the building that we're currently in as well as the lot next door, trying to get it ready, so considering all that's going on there, I think Rodney and all the rest of the crew chiefs have done a really good job, and Zipadelli in particular, have done a great job of being able to work around the construction. Like I said, we feel like we're actually way ahead of where we were last year this time.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about what it meant to you to have fans pulling for you while you went through your rehab? It's a long process for you, but they were pulling all the way.
TONY STEWART: Yeah, I mean, the great thing is our fans don't stop just because we stopped racing. It was cool to see through the winter, and we had an appearance last night in Jacksonville and had a lot of fans there, so it was exciting to see how excited they were of our progress. It's like little victories, like getting off of crutches and walking on our own again. That's something the fans picked up on, and that was like a victory to them. It's been pretty cool. It's not just been a personal thing every day when I get up, it's knowing that everybody is following what we're doing, and when we have these little personal victories, accomplishments of getting healed back up, it's much broader than just what's going on with me, it's affecting a lot more people.
Q. How is your health compared to how you feel? What are the doctors saying?
TONY STEWART: Not bad. The weather I'm a pretty good barometer right now. Seems like if the rain comes or snow or cold comes, I know it right before it changes. But I feel pretty good. I still have a little ways to go, but we've got four weeks to get ready the rest of the way. Even when we get here in February, it's not going to be 100 percent. Physically I'm not going to feel 100 percent, but I'll be able to do my job 100 percent, so that's the main thing. I don't mind it taking a little longer for the physical side to heal, as long as I can drive a race car when I need to when I get back.
Q. Can you talk about how challenging it's been for you both from a mental and a physical standpoint in getting back?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, I guess the hardest part is just not knowing where I'm supposed to be. I mean, I've never had an injury like this so I don't have anything to compare it to. I kind of base everything on a week to week deal, and on Sunday I kind of evaluate where I was the Sunday before and go from there.
It's been kind of a challenge, I guess, from that standpoint. The physical side of it is an obvious deal. It's getting everything healed back up and going through rehab and doing everything we're supposed to do. But just not knowing exactly what I'm supposed to feel like, if something hurts why is it hurting. I've not had those experiences before. The therapist gets his phone I think he sets it on his nightstand at night because I call him at night and ask him a lot of questions. But having those guys around, it kind of takes the psychological side and kind of puts a lot of that at ease.
Q. Does he pick up at night?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, he knows if I call he's picking it up. I don't think his wife is happy I have his cell number, but I'm happy I have it. It's been a peace of mind for me.
Q. I'm curious how your stamina is.
TONY STEWART: Welcome to Daytona. (Laughter.)
Q. In terms of how you're spending your days
TONY STEWART: You put the pause in there, I didn't.
Q. Your stamina in terms of how much time you're spending resting versus doing other things, and how you're spending your days. Obviously not being in the car and able to test and things like that, are you doing a whole lot more with getting the team ready?
TONY STEWART: I've just got back to Charlotte two days ago, actually. I did go home for break, went home on the 20th and came back the 8th. I've been doing some therapy at the house, as much as I can do, which has been about 75 percent of what I could do at the clinic where I'd go do my therapy in Charlotte. So I've been able to continue what we've been doing.
The days have varied obviously through holidays, traveling, being at family functions. I went to a race in Fort Wayne in between Christmas and New Year's, so I was up a lot those two days. Those were probably the hardest two days of the off season for me. Next week we're going to the Chili Bowl and hanging out, so you're up on your feet all day.
We're basically back to normal days as far as being up and being up all day. Occasionally you'll sit down and get a break, but no more than anybody else would.
But I haven't been just sitting the whole time I've been home. I've actually been down and working and trying to make sure that we don't go backwards by not continuing our therapy. I actually go back to therapy Friday night when we get back from the test. We're actually going in late to do a therapy session.
I've been excited about it. I kind of it's hard to go, like I said, day to day and say, okay, today is better than yesterday because there's days you get up and you hurt worse and you don't know why, but consistently every weekend on Sunday where we've sat and said, okay, where are we at versus last week or two weeks ago, it's been better. I feel like we're doing the right stuff to get ready. The hard part is I still don't get through the day like I would like to get through the day, but like I said, a week ago I wasn't I couldn't get through the day near like I could this past weekend.
It's continuing to get better, and like I say, we've got four more weeks to get ready for that. Luckily this is a smooth racetrack. It's not rough and bumpy. If it were Dover, I would be a lot more concerned. But the hard part with here is you're just with your throttle, with your right leg, you're on the gas so long. That's the only thing we're worried about right now just because we just don't know until we get in a car and actually run, and we're not going to know that until the day before. We'll get a little bit of time in there, but we'll know a little better after practice is over.
Q. Percentage wise are you spending more of your time getting yourself better physically or more (inaudible)?
TONY STEWART: I think during the last two weeks it's been more getting myself better. The hard part is when you're out of town and you're kind of removed from it. The good thing was a lot of the team members went and had vacation days and took vacation, so we kind of were all on a little bit of break together. They came back a little earlier than I did. That's the nice thing about having Greg Zipadelli. I can be absent for a couple days and don't have to worry about things.
Q. While you're laid up, have you had a chance to sort of come up with a bucket list of things you'd like to do when you get back in a race car, or race cars?
TONY STEWART: February here is high on that bucket list. We haven't won here yet. We've won here, just not on the right day. The second Sunday would be nice. That's all that's on the bucket list right now.
Q. And on the other hand, have you had time to sort of reflect back at stuff you've already accomplished in cars through your career?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, honestly I really have. I've had a lot of time that I had a lot of spare time that I wasn't used to, and just whether it was visitors coming and talking or telling stories, there's a lot of things that even through the last couple weeks when I was home, seeing people that I haven't seen for a long time and hearing stories, it's pretty cool to finally have time a little bit to reflect back on what we've done in our career.
It's like I told them at the end of every conversation, I was like, yeah, that's just that chapter. We're still building chapters down the road. It's neat to talk about what we did in the past, but I'm excited to talk about what hopefully we can do in the future now.
Q. When you mentioned that you'll be cleared the day before the Sprint Unlimited and that you might not feel 100 percent but will be able to give 100 percent, can you kind of do you have any idea how much your most recent surgery, kind of, if not for that do you think you would be closer to feeling as good as well as being able to perform at the start of the season?
TONY STEWART: Honestly, that second or the third surgery wasn't really much of a setback in all reality. We were actually ahead of schedule with the therapy when we had that surgery, so it basically just pushed it back to where we were right back on schedule again, and now it just feels like we're back ahead of schedule again. Twice we've been able to kind of push ahead of schedule it seems like, so pretty confident from that standpoint that that wasn't a setback at all. It's still a question mark of what's it actually going to feel like when we get in the race car and try to drive wide open for lap after lap.
Q. Is this pretty much the schedule that you hoped for when this all happened?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, we're actually just a tick ahead of schedule still. It's the second time since the injury happened that the therapist has said we're ahead.
Q. Two questions: Have you seen sat in a car?
TONY STEWART: Yes, I did. I had a seat fit at the shop about, I guess, three weeks ago or four weeks ago. So it felt like an old pair of shoes. The hard part was they kept telling me I had to get out of it. I wanted to sit in it. I felt like a kid. I wanted to keep moving the steering wheel and everything else. They said, you have to get out so we can finish doing our job with the seat. That was kind of fun to get back in there. It kind of felt like the first time I got in one. It was that kind of excitement.
Q. You can drive a streetcar?
TONY STEWART: I've been driving for four months.
Q. At the shop you had talked I guess in November about what a grueling off season this was going to be for Zippy and the huge undertaking. How has that gone behind the scenes and the job he's done?
TONY STEWART: Why do you think I went home? I didn't want to be around. (Laughing.)
Q. But you said that just because you got hurt, you didn't have the luxury of taking time off?
TONY STEWART: He's not going to give me that much luxury. He's done well with it. I think when all this happened it was a thrash at first to kind of figure out, okay, how are we going to do this, and I'm pretty proud of Zippy and everybody at our shop. I think everybody got a plan together, and they've been sticking to the plan.
Like I said, I haven't been there the last couple weeks, but the atmosphere at the shop, we've not seen it. I've not seen it the five years I've been there. It's just at a high it's never been at before.
I'm really happy with where we're at with it. I mean, it's, I think, the best scenario and the best place we've been in since we've been a part of the company.
Q. You touched on this a little bit when you mentioned that you have gotten in the car and everything, but with so much at stake, does the fact that you guys will be down here for so long for Speedweeks kind of allow you to not be as concerned about how you're going to do in the car? And also, do you have have you been able to make racing plans outside of Cup for 2014, or is that just on hold until you know how you're going to do?
TONY STEWART: We haven't even worked on a schedule for my sprint car. I'm going to run races. We've got a sponsor for it. We're going to go ahead and run, we just are kind of playing it by ear right now. They're getting stuff ready. The Cup car is the priority right now and making sure that we're comfortable there.
Like I say, I'm going to feel I'm not going to feel 100 percent physically, but I'm going to feel 100 percent enough to drive a Cup car. Bouncing around in a sprint car is a little different deal. We'll take a little more time there's not a sense of urgency. There's not a set schedule for it yet. It's more making sure that I feel 100 percent. They're not going to back Daytona up for me if I don't feel like I'm 100 percent getting ready for it, so this was the priority, obviously. But we're pushing ahead on that side, as well, and getting cars ready.
Q. I'm assuming there's no doubt whatsoever in your mind that you'll be able to race in February? At what percentage do you think you could perform right now if you had to get in the car? And at what percentage would you put on your positivity that you're going to be able to race when February rolls around? And the second part, Mark Martin's role with you guys this year, what do you see him doing, a little bit of everything, or just talk about him if you would.
TONY STEWART: Yeah, especially today is a perfect example. While I'm still healing up, Mark is helping out and doing the testing for us. His role is huge, obviously. I mean, when he comes to the shop, he doesn't come around and just walk around and smile and say hi to everybody. I mean, when Mark shows up at the shop he's got an agenda and he's wide open when he gets there getting it done.
I think there's more that he can contribute that I even realize he can at this point, but he's been very good about when he comes to the shop of working with all the crew chiefs and being a big asset of getting things ready for this year.
I don't know any team other than us that have somebody like Mark that can do as much as he can do right now. He's so versatile with being able to drive and at the same time being able to go and help with direction on things that he sees that he knows needs changed and things that we're doing right that they need to pat the guys on the back for. From that side, he's been a huge asset.
As far as percentages, I'm 100 percent confident when I get here in February I'll be fine to drive and race and be able to do everything I need to do. Today I can't sit here and say I'm 100 percent, but I've got four more weeks, and four weeks to go, I'm a lot further along now than I was four weeks ago, so I'm confident when we come back I'll be fine. It's hard to know when you get in the car 100 percent. But I feel like I could get in the car and drive right now. I just don't know, like Holly said, about my stamina yet. I'm kind of curious to know about my stamina, as well.
Q. You've got a bigger team, new drivers, and a shop under construction. What's possible for this team this year considering all that?
TONY STEWART: I think it's I think every week we for sure have three guys that can go out and win the race, and I think on the fourth driver, I think Danica has got potential to be more consistent this year. I think she's got three teammates that are going to be behind her 100 percent.
You know, I think we can win a lot of races. I think realistically we could get three cars in the Chase. It wouldn't surprise me at all. I'd almost be a little disappointed in all three of these cars don't make the Chase by the end of the year. It's not that we're discounting Danica, but it's still a work in progress. She's still learning.
This year I think will be a big year for her. I think she's going to I think having that first full season under her belt now and being able to go to every place twice and get the feeling of what a Cup weekend is like, I think all the news wore off of that this year and I think she knows more what to expect and it's more a matter of focusing on the things that she can be better at. I think all four of us have the potential to do better than all four of us did last year. But for sure I feel like we've got three cars that can win races and make the Chase right now.
Q. Can you talk at all about your plans for the car that you were planning to race in the Chili Bowl?
TONY STEWART: I'm not racing it. Kasey Kahne is running it.
Q. I understand that, but what do you plan to do with the car?
TONY STEWART: The car is going to be raffled off, and I can't even tell you what the website is right now to be honest. I'll make sure Mike gets you that information later. But what we decided to do is Bob East built the car. It's our motor and drive line in the car, and what we decided to do was take the motor out of the car after the event. You don't have to purchase to get a ticket, but they're taking donations for the Charlie Dean fund. I think the raffle is going to go on two weeks after the Chili Bowl until the end of the month, and then somebody will have the car that Kasey Kahne drove and that we owned at the Chili Bowl this year. I thought that would be something that like I said, Bob was willing to donate the car. We were willing to donate the drive line and parts and everything but the motor. I thought that was something that's a pretty cool keep sake that somebody can get from the Chili Bowl this year that has two guys that were really good friends with Jason attached to it.
THE MODERATOR: Tony, thank you very much for your time today, and it is great to see you back here at Daytona.