In a NASCAR Sprint Cup season where he has failed to get a victory, perhaps Tony Stewart needed a little confidence boost.
Or perhaps he just needed a reason to smile.
Stewart, who is preparing for his biggest week of the year with the NASCAR Truck Series at his Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio, followed by the annual Sprint Cup stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, talked about his winged sprint car win Friday at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Michigan.
It was Stewart’s first night of sprint-car racing since he shattered his right leg Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway.
“It felt great,” said Stewart, who was speaking on a NASCAR conference call Monday. “I mean, it wasn’t a World of Outlaws race or a big paying race by any means, but there were some good cars there, and we got a little bit of luck. Actually we were probably going to run second, but a guy late in the race got pushed off the track by a lapped car, so we got a little bit of luck there. But it just felt good to get in one, period, and just run again.
“It was neat to get back in the car finally in a scenario that was low-pressure, and just get to kind of go in and race for a couple nights (he also raced on Saturday).”
For Stewart, it was a return to normalcy in terms of what his life was like before the wreck.
“I’ve got some more (sprint-car races) on my schedule,” he said. “Not as many as I originally
wanted to run, but I think I’ve kind of worked with (Greg Zipadelli) and sat down with our management and just tried to pick some places that we know might not be quite as high risk as others because of speed and everything.
“There are some races on there that I really have my heart set on running, but I’ve tried to be smart about where we’re going.”
If things are back to normal for Stewart, he should be in the hunt on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he has won twice and often has been in contention.
“That is sacred ground to me,” Stewart said. “It always has been, always will be. I don’t care how many times you win there, it’s never enough. It’s nice to have won two races already there; that gives you the confidence of know what you have to do to win. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
One thing he hasn’t done this season is win. He is 19th in the points standings and faces a battle to get into The Chase.
He doesn’t blame his leg injury for his sub-par season.
“There is nothing that’s not felt good from day one,” Stewart said. “Even when we were at Daytona we felt comfortable in the racecar, and there wasn’t anything that was a distraction. As much as our emphasis is on wins and not points racing, we’re kind of in a position where we’re close to being in that part of it as well where we could get in (The Chase) on points. It’s kind of a double-edged sword right now. Do you get yourself in a position where you go for the win and risk if you run second losing that opportunity? Or do you sit there and say, well, I need to have a solid point day because we have the opportunity on the other side of the coin.”
Winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup race this season takes care of a trip to the Chase. Stewart said his sprint-car win Friday gives him a better feeling about taking a checkered flag in the big series soon.
“Dealing with when you haven’t won, and you haven’t been necessarily a contender to be in the top two or three each week, you start questioning what is it in the equation that you’re missing,” he said. “We’re all finicky when it comes to running bad, and you sit there and start questioning if you’re doing something wrong or if you’re not adapting to the car. Is it something that you’re doing or not doing as a driver?
“To be able to go out and win on Friday night and run third on Saturday night, and to have two good runs like that in a car that I haven’t been in for almost a full year now, that was a huge confidence boost and made me feel like, hey, maybe we’ll just meet and find something else (to get his Sprint Cup car into Victory Lane).”
Before Stewart even thinks about winning at Indy, he needs to concentrate on Eldora, which is hosting the Truck Series’ Mudsummer Classic for the second consecutive year.
“It’s about as close to being a proud father as I can imagine being,” Stewart said of hosting the race. “It’s just a lot of work. Anybody that thinks that putting on a single NASCAR event is easy, let’s just open the gates. People think you start working I think a week ahead of time to get ready for stuff like this, and it’s been a very large, eye-opening experience for me. It takes months and months of work, and so many details.
“I’m really excited and ticket sales are great. We’ve got less than a thousand reserve seats left.”
After the truck race Wednesday, Stewart hopes he finds magic at Indy.
Does he feel he is close?
“The hard part is that the cars are so sensitive now that it’s kind of hard to tell,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to read. If you find something that works, it can be big and be big for weeks on end, but it’s just finding that. The competition is so close that you’re not looking for big chunks of speed, you’re looking for little things you can do week in and week out, and that is the thing that’s hard to predict and hard to get a feel on when it is going to happen.
“So it’s literally still a week-to-week project of trying to learn the new set-ups, the new rules package, and what you have to do to be competitive with it.”
He will continue to compete with a right leg that might never be pain free.
“I still deal with pain every day, but that’s something that’s not even going to probably go away by the end of the year. The reality of it is there might be a point where it will never totally go away, but it doesn’t keep me from doing what I love to do.
“I don’t feel pain in the racecar. I haven’t from Daytona on through even this past weekend. So I know that’s probably around 3 percent of my week that I spend in the racecar, but as long as that 3 percent is comfortable and I can enjoy doing what I’m doing, I can deal with the pain the other 97 percent of the week.”