Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart were boarding a flight home after a recent sponsorship appearance when Harvick glanced over at his car owner and teammate. Stewart hadn't raced in six months, when he broke his right leg in a sprint car wreck. Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 was approaching but still 13 agonizing days away. "We got on that plane, and he was like a crazed lunatic," Harvick said. "You could see that look in his eye." "Smoke" was ready to race.
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season figures to be the year of the comeback with top drivers trying to bounce back from injury (Denny Hamlin), struggles on the track (Brad Keselowski) or problems off it (AJ Allmendinger).
But no comeback story is bigger than Stewart, the 42-year-old Hoosier nicknamed "Smoke" who expects to contend for his fourth series championship half a season removed from an injury that threatened to derail his career.
"He's done a lot of other great things in his career," said Keselowski, NASCAR's 2012 champion. "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."
That list of accomplishments is long.
Stewart won NASCAR series titles in 2002, 2005 and 2011 and an IndyCar championship in 1997. His 48 Cup wins — including at least one in each of the past 15 seasons — trail only Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson among active drivers. And he had started 521 consecutive Cup races when he climbed into a sprint car in Iowa on Aug. 5.
Stewart was leading when he slammed into a slower car. He flipped five times down the dirt track and broke two bones.
"That's a level of pain I've never had before," Stewart said.
He missed the last 15 races of the season and watched three replacement drivers manage only one top-10 finish in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet. Stewart needed two surgeries to stabilize the leg and insert a titanium rod. Just as he was starting to walk — and the Chase was heating up without him — he required a third surgery to clear up an infection.
The pain was so severe during healing and rehab, even lying in bed was uncomfortable. It shouldn't be a surprise the only place Stewart — the racing addict who packs 100 events into his calendar — felt right was in the driver's seat.
"If we can figure out how to take the seat and pedals out of the car, lay it back 40 degrees, I could sleep like a baby for the first time in a long time," Stewart said.
Even now, more than six months after his injury, Stewart is still recovering. His bones are only about 65 percent healed and might need another year to mend fully. He said his leg could feel the snowstorm brewing in Charlotte, N.C., this month and the cold front that crept toward Daytona International Speedway last week.
But he's healthy enough to return from the longest offseason of his life.
His strength is back, and he has slimmed down from 198 pounds to 182. His therapy sessions included workouts with a custom-built seat, steering column and pedals to simulate driving. His crew tweaked the car down to the angle of the gas pedal, and Harvick gave him a pad to protect his knees.
"I don't know what else we can do to prepare than what we've done," Stewart said.
Stewart and his crew can't protect against everything. His season got off to a lousy start last week with a blown engine at practice and a wreck at the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race on Saturday.
Even with a rough beginning, half a season off and several months of discomfort ahead, his fellow drivers expect Stewart to contend immediately for his first Daytona 500 win and another series championship.
"He's not going to have any trouble," Allmendinger said. "He's Smoke. "
And Smoke always rises.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]m or via Twitter at @MattHomeTeam.