DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was supposed to be just a routine practice session in preparation for Saturday's Sprint Unlimited. The opening practice of the year for the annual non-points race that's akin to a spring training baseball game.
There was nothing routine, however, about this initial round of practice that kicked off the 2014 NASCAR season. The differences were many, as witnessed by the throng of media surrounding one particular garage stall.
It was all owed to the return of Tony Stewart, who for the first time since a horrific leg injury returned to the seat of his No. 14 Chevrolet.
The last time Stewart grasped the wheel of a Sprint Cup car was Aug. 4 at Pocono Raceway, where he placed ninth. The following night in a sprint car at an Iowa dirt track, he broke his right leg in two places and missed the remainder of the Cup season.
Normally someone with a flippant approach toward practice, Stewart was seated in his car nearly 20 minutes before NASCAR opened the track Friday.
But once Stewart rolled out of the garage, trailing Jamie McMurray with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tucked behind him, it was business as usual. There was nary an indicator Stewart hadn't turned a lap in six months, running in the outside lane in a pack of cars as speeds flirted with 200 mph. When he returned to the garage for adjustments, crew chief Chad Johnston asked his driver if he needed to get out of the car. "I'm good," Stewart replied.
He completed a total of 24 laps, posting the 10th-fastest time.
And immediately upon stepping out of his car, Stewart was back in his old routine. First was a quick debrief with Johnston, then a Q-and-A with the media assembled outside his hauler.
"I'm glad it wasn't any bigger a deal than that," Stewart said. "... Once we got off of pit road and got going and actually got in the pack there, you forgot about the other stuff and went back to work. Just got back in the swing of things."
Stewart's biggest apprehension entering the day was how he would feel afterward. Those concerns were alleviated, as he felt no lingering effects despite a leg that Stewart estimates is just 65 percent healed.
"It felt good," Stewart said. "The great thing is zero percentage of pain in the car. ...That was better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache, pain of some kind that would bother us. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again."
The second round of practice also was uneventful. All in all, it was just a typical day at the office. And if Stewart had his druthers, he would be off to a local dirt track.
"If I didn't think (Stewart-Haas Racing competition director) Greg Zipadelli would absolutely kill me, I would probably want to go race at Volusia tonight," Stewart said. "It felt that good. I don't think Zippy would be the only guy. I think the entire organization would probably duct tape me to the flagpole on the front stretch so I couldn't go."