Injured in a Sprint Car accident Aug. 5 in Iowa and sidelined for the balance of the 2013 season, Stewart has undergone three surgeries on his broken right leg -- followed by a physical therapy regimen that has taken him from bedridden … to a wheelchair … to crutches … to the ability to stand and walk on his own.
"I'm 100-percent confident that when I get here in February, I'll be fine to drive and race and be able to do everything I need to do," Stewart said Thursday morning in the media center at Daytona International Speedway. "Today, I can't sit here and say I'm 100 percent, but I've got four more weeks.
"And with four weeks to go, I'm a lot further along now than I was four weeks ago, so I'm confident that when we come back, I'll be fine."
In a sense, Stewart was on equal footing with the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Thursday. No one turned a lap at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, due to a persistent rain that washed out all track activities of the first day of Preseason Thunder, the first two days of which were to be devoted to NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"It's nice to be back at the track," Stewart said. "I would definitely like to be in a car this week, but we're still on schedule to be cleared the day before [the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited race], so we'll be down here for two days, hanging out and watching our teams run."
The hanging out part was right, at least, but the rain quashed the possibility of testing the cars. With a rod in his leg from the second surgery, Stewart joked that he was more sensitive than ever to the weather.
"I'm a pretty good barometer right now," he said. "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."
Stewart is thankful he'll make his return at Daytona, rather than at a more physically demanding track.
"Luckily, this is a smooth race track," he said. "It's not rough and bumpy. If it were Dover, I'd be a lot more concerned. But the hard part here is 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."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘concerned’ about finding crew chief's successor
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. survive the departure his crew chief with his newfound confidence intact?
In a question-and-answer session with reporters Friday at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt seemed less worried about crew chief Steve Letarte's lame-duck status this season and more concerned about the difficulty of finding a successor when Letarte departs the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.
"I think the one thing that I fear is just trying to get a guy in there that's equally as talented," said Earnhardt, who will turn 40 Oct. 10. "Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car driver and as a person. Working with him has really helped me grow. I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years.
"I think I can carry that with me, what I've learned about myself and what I've learned about the job and what my job is and what my responsibility is to Steve and the crew chief. I think I can carry that with me -- hopefully I can at this age. Hopefully, I've learned something and learned enough to do a better job for the next guy."
Trying to put the best face on the transition and conceding that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find a new crew chief who combines the ebullience, knowledge and work ethic of Letarte, Earnhardt hopes to get a successor who is long on talent.
"I think that my fear is just ‘Can we replace Steve?'" Earnhardt said. "It's a guy that's going to be hard to replace. I'm not worried about the specific qualities that Steve has, but just will we be able to get a guy in there of equal talent, and how well will we be able to make that transition seamless? It's going to be a real challenge to do that, and I guess that's my only concern."
Earnhardt, however, said he would not put forth suggestions for a new hire, preferring to leave the personnel decision to team owner Rick Hendrick and general manager Doug Duchardt, with input from Letarte and chief Chad Knaus, six-time champion crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. Letarte and Knaus work closely together in the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
"I won't make any suggestions at all," Earnhardt said. "I will leave that up to Rick, Doug. I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. I think that Steve knows what makes this team work. Steve knows how I can be successful and how the individuals within the team can be successful. I think he'd be a good guy to sort of pick at and hope that Doug and Rick would include him in that conversation at times.
"I think it's important that Chad has got a lot of influence, because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a guy, a particular guy, may mesh in that environment. But I don't really want to have any influence on the choice."
In a press conference introducing him as a member of the NBC team starting in 2015 when the network begins its new contract as a NASCAR broadcast partner, Letarte echoed Earnhardt's confidence that they can work through 2014 without distraction.
"I think that this is a very different situation, because I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014," Letarte said. "I'm working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race. Dale and I have had that conversation, and he said it the best, that this will give us an opportunity to really cherish those races and those opportunities, and I think, if anything, it might allow us to be better at our jobs because frustration sets in for everyone in the garage area. It's a tough sport. If it doesn't set in, you don't care enough about your job.
"And I think this is one more thing that could maybe drag us out of frustration, because you know there's a timestamp on the end of it. So do you really want to throw away your last trip to Sonoma together? Do you want to put personal feelings in the way of trying to win the Brickyard? I think to do that would really be a shame for what we've built over the last three years, and I don't think it would happen."
Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards has long been a proponent of lower downforce numbers in the aerodynamic packages of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race cars.
But Edwards was not chagrined when testing at Charlotte during December led to a package that increases downforce on the cars. Why? Because Edwards understands that it's all part of a process.
"I'm not a very patient person, so it's difficult for me to say, ‘Hey, OK, we're going to go ahead and go down this road for a while,'" Edwards told the NASCAR Wire Service. "…You can say what you like about NASCAR and the directions they go, but they are committed to changing whatever it takes to be the best we can be.
"I've learned and seen that more lately than ever. That makes me excited."
Of course, that doesn't change the way Edwards would like the cars to handle.
"For the record, I'm all for chopping the spoilers completely off and wetting down the track, but that's me,"he laughed. "They know that about me."
If Jimmie Johnson is in position to win a seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship as the Chase develops later this year, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet realizes that his pursuit of that monumental accomplishment might have a different, more pressure-packed feel.
After all, Johnson is one title away from tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships in series history.
"If the opportunity is there in front of us, and we get deep in the Chase and have a shot at it, that reality is going to be hard to keep out of my mind," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm sure that the questions that would come with it as well wouldn't let it slide by.
"But (it's an) amazing opportunity to have ahead of myself. To have six championships is something I'm extremely proud of. I don't know what it would mean or what that experience would exactly feel like, but to be up there with those two legends would be top of the list."
Richard Buck is new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series managing director
With the appointment of Richard Buck as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series managing director, a three-year "mystery" finally comes to an end.
Buck, currently serving as vice president of racing operations for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) will assume his new duties after the completion of the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 26.
Buck will replace current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby, who will remain with the sanctioning body as managing director, competition.
"Thanks for reminding me that we've been saying this for the last three years, that we were going to replace Darby as the Cup series director, which has been part of our game plan," NASCAR President Mike Helton quipped at a Thursday news conference at Daytona International Speedway.
"Once we started that effort, what became apparent to us was the need for recreating the NASCAR competition group, and so we didn't look as hard as we probably should have for a long time, knowing that there was a lot of internal work that was going to come…"
In addition to his role with IMSA, Buck has served simultaneously as managing director of NASCAR's Touring Series. In a varied career in racing, Buck played a key role in the development of a "spec" engine for what are now the NASCAR K&N Pro East and West Series.
Fans to pick Sprint Unlimited formats
For the second year in a row, race fans will have a significant voice in choosing the format and important competition elements for the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. In voting that opened Thursday, fans will choose 1) the breakdown of lap segments in the 75-lap event, 2) the format for determining the starting order of the race and 3) the method for determining the running order for the start of the final segment.
Votes can be cast through the official NASCAR app, NASCAR MOBILE or at NASCAR.com/Sprint Unlimited. Choices for the lap breakdown are: 30-35-10; 30-30-15; or 30-25-20. Fans also will decide whether the starting order is set by most career poles (Jeff Gordon is the active leader with 74); by 2013 driver points standings, which would give the top starting spot to reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, or by top speed in final Sprint Unlimited practice.
At a last Thursday announcement in the Daytona Fan Zone, FOX lead broadcaster Mike Joy revealed the final set of choices, whether to restart the final segment according to fastest lap during the race, most laps led to that point or the order leaving pit road after a mandatory two-tire pit stop.
Both Gordon and Johnson argued for the pit stop, but Denny Hamlin was adamant that the lead for the final segment should go to the driver who has led the most laps.
"If people know that their starting position is going to rely on leading laps, everyone's going to try to charge to the front for the first two segments," Hamlin said. "I think that gives the fans the biggest opportunity for the greatest racing from one segment all the way to three."
Voting results will be announced during the FOX Sports 1 race broadcast.