DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In my opinion, the two drivers who are going to bear the most scrutiny – by far – this season are, first, a past champion who is returning from a major injury and, second, a young rookie who will compete with NASCAR’s most iconic number that is readily identified with its most iconic driver.
Tony Stewart shattered his right leg seven months ago in an accident in a Sprint Car race. The two-time champion missed 15 races as doctors rebuilt his leg and he fought a bout with infection. He underwent rigid rehabilitation.
“The good thing is with all of that our therapy has been going really well and in the last few weeks we’ve made huge gains,” said Stewart, whose four-car team includes drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. “I don’t know how we could be more prepared, honestly, than what we are right now.
“The perfect scenario, everything would be healed 100% and we wouldn’t be talking about it. The bone is still about 65% healed right now.
“But as far as muscles and everything, the strength is coming much quicker than I thought it was going to be.”
Stewart admitted some internal changes were made to his Chevrolet to make it more comfortable for him. Fact is, inside the car is where he is most at ease.
“I’m actually more comfortable sitting in a car than I am laying in bed at the end of the day,” Stewart said. “Sitting in the race car the last couple weeks, getting everything done, it feels even more comfortable than the street car.”
Stewart’s first laps in his car came during Sprint Unlimited practice on Feb. 14. He said he felt a sense of joy and relief to be back on the track.
“I think once we got the relief of knowing we weren’t hurting any more it was just the joy of being out there again,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I had been gone for seven months.”
Stewart posted the fourth-fastest 10 consecutive lap average speed of 194.212 mph.
Stewart knows he’s going to be under the microscope. People will be curious to see how he races with an injury that is not quite healed They will wonder that, if at some point, his performance – or lack of it – will cause self-doubt.
“No, there are no gremlins, honestly no,” he said. “The reason for that is right off the bat the surgeon, the therapists, they’ve all said, ‘You’re going to have 100 percent recovery.’ With that, from day one, it took that doubt out.
“Instead of having the doubt, it’s a matter of when is it going to be 100 percent, how long is the pain going to stay, am I always going to have pain, questions like that.
“There is no doubt about being able to do what we love to do.”
Austin Dillon is 23-year old rookie who won the Nationwide Series championship last season.
He comes from excellent racing stock. His grandfather is team owner Richard Childress, for whom Dillon has raced for several years.
He will race for Childress on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2014. And he will do so in a No. 3 Chevrolet.
It will mark the first time the No. 3 has been a part of Sprint Cup racing since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. It was Earnhardt who drove the No. 3 to glory for so many years.
That the number has returned does not sit well with many fans. They steadfastly believe the No. 3 is Earnhardt’s alone – and should never be raced again.
But that it is back is, partly, the result of careful planning between Childress and Dillon.
“I think both of us for years now, running the No. 3 in the last four years (in multiple NASCAR circuits), it kind of prepared us for any kind of question or opportunity that arises,” Dillon said. “The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just, you know, taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way.
“We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3. I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Dillon is nobody’s fool. He knows that to continue the legacy of the No. 3 he has to perform well. It’s that simple. And there are those who want to see him fail simply because of his car number.
“I think Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today.
“But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but also because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.
“As for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on.”
Make no mistake Dillon will feel some pressure as he undergoes scrutiny. People will want to see if he can indeed continue the legacy of the No. 3.
It’s simply the way it is.
—- Dillon made a very auspicious and popular Sprint Cup debut when he won the pole in the No. 3 Chevrolet on Feb. 16. It offered some evidence, however slim, that Dillon may indeed be able to continue the legacy of the number used by Earnhardt.
—- Stewart, meanwhile, did not experience similar fate. He was involved in an eight-car crash in the Sprint Unlimited and finished 11thamong 18 starters. Stewart wrecked hard and there was concern he may have re-injured his leg. “No, there’s no pain,” Stewart said. “We’ll see in about an hour after the adrenalin wears off but so far, it feels good.”