He often calls his physical therapist for "peace of mind" and questions about his recovery, even at night.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart believes he's still on schedule to return from a major leg injury before NASCAR gets on track for its 2014 season.
Stewart told reporters Thursday he expects to be cleared Feb. 14 -- the day before the season-opening Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway -- and drive a race car for the first time since he broke his right tibia and fibula in an Aug. 5 sprint car crash. Stewart's physical therapist has told the driver he's ahead of schedule, Stewart said.
Though he still struggles to make it through the day in terms of being on his feet for hours at a time, Stewart said four more weeks of physical therapy should leave him in good enough shape to drive a race car -- even if he's not at full strength physically.
"Physically, I'm not going to feel 100%," he said. "But I'll be able to do my job 100%, so that's the main thing."
Stewart was well enough to go home to Indiana for nearly three weeks for the Christmas break before returning to Charlotte this week to continue his therapy. He often calls his physical therapist for "peace of mind" and questions about his recovery, even at night.
"There's days when you get up and you hurt worse and you don't know why," he said. "But consistently, every weekend on Sunday where we've sat and said, 'OK, 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 Feb. 23 Daytona 500 could be a challenge for Stewart because drivers keep their right leg pressed on the gas for so long -- often all the way around the track. But a smooth surface will play into his favor, he said.
"It's not rough and bumpy," he said. "If it were Dover, I would be a lot more concerned."
Stewart climbed into the car three weeks ago for a seat fitting and said it "felt like an old pair of shoes" (he's already been driving a street car for months). The only problem came when the team wanted him to get out so it could continue working.
The three-time NASCAR champion, having missed the feel of his ride, was reluctant.
"I wanted to sit in it," he said. "I felt like a kid. ... It kind of felt like the first time I got in one."
Stewart was driving a sprint car race in Iowa -- dirt racing is a favorite hobby -- when he crashed into another driver and badly broke his leg. He missed the remainder of the Sprint Cup Series season and has Mark Martin scheduled to test for him at Daytona this week.
He won't know how his leg will truly react to race conditions until he starts driving again during Daytona Speedweeks.
"It's still a question mark of what it's actually going to feel like when we get in the race car and try to drive wide open for lap after lap," he said.
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