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Jan 27, 2015 5:55 PM

Tony Stewart returns with a swagger not seen in 2 years

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Tony Stewart, walking without a limp for the first time in 18 months, declared himself pain-free and never more eager to start a season.

After a tumultuous two seasons that affected him physically and mentally, the three-time NASCAR champion said Tuesday his troubles are behind him and he finally feels like the old Smoke again.

"When they counted down to the end of 2014, I was never so happy to see that number go off the calendar," he said. "I am ready to put the last two years behind me and never look back, not look in the mirror, not talking about it, not thinking about it. I am going back to being me again."

His chance to prove it begins next month at Daytona International Speedway, where Stewart will climb back into his No. 14 Chevrolet for the first time since November, when his 15-year winning streak in the Sprint Cup Series came to an end. He failed to win a race for the first time since his 1999 rookie season, and the streak ended on the same day Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick claimed his first championship.

Two weeks later, Stewart was back in the hospital for a fourth surgery on the right leg he broke in an August 2013 sprint car crash in Iowa. The damage from the injury has lingered, but he said the last procedure has him almost healed. He will have one more surgery at the end of 2015 to remove the titanium rod in his leg.

"Most of the pain is gone and I am walking better than I have since I had the accident," Stewart said. "Trust me, I can promise you, I am way healed up for what I need to do this year and it's not going to be a factor in any race this season."

He will start by seeking his first Daytona 500 win in 17 tries. NASCAR's crown jewel remains one of the very few things missing from Stewart's resume. He's got 48 career Cup wins four in the July race at Daytona but none in the big show.

Stewart also has yet to win at Darlington and Kentucky, the only two active tracks on the schedule where he doesn't have a Cup victory.

But don't be fooled into thinking he's chasing those milestones to complete his resume. He was strident Tuesday in how comfortable he is in his own skin again, and how confident he is that he is a contender on the track.

Stewart struggled in 2013 before he broke his leg and missed the final 15 races of the season. And his feel was off when he returned last year and struggled with NASCAR's new rules package.

Then came the Aug. 9 incident at a New York state dirt track, where Stewart's car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. as the fellow driver walked on the track in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The incident sent Stewart into a tailspin. He spent three weeks in seclusion trying to deal with his grief, and was a broken man when he returned for the final 12 races of the season.

The healing didn't start until September when a grand jury declined to charge him with Ward's death, but it's been his time away from the track the last two months that have given Stewart his swagger back. Although he claimed his all-black outfit Tuesday was slimming, he appeared to be down at least 15 pounds from November.

He was refreshed from a quiet December at home in Indiana, then a week at sprint car races in Arizona with his team, followed by a week in Oklahoma at the Chili Bowl.

"I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anybody," he said. "It's more like what I want to do, not what I feel I have to show people I can do. I'm ready to be back. I want to be competitive, I want to be winning races again."

At 43, Stewart's clock is ticking. It became more of a discussion last week when four-time series champion Jeff Gordon announced this season will be his last. Stewart is three months older than Gordon, but has six fewer seasons than Gordon in the Cup Series.

Stewart said he spent last Thursday texting with his one-time fierce rival about the time they first met, their history together and Gordon's contributions to the sport. There is perhaps a spot deep down in Stewart that has been forced to think about his own future, and Gordon's decision might have also created some self-reflection.

He was adamant Tuesday the end is not near.

"You look at what's on my plate, I am pretty pot-committed to this sport," he said, before noting the differences between he and Gordon.

Gordon is a married father of two young children. Stewart is a perpetual bachelor who considers his pet pig his son, but is also consumed by the race tracks and teams that he owns.

"It's not comparing apples to apples. Everybody's scenarios and situations are different, what they want out of the rest of their lives, so (Gordon) didn't make me think anything about my career, it made me think about Jeff's career," he said. "As much as I always thought in my mind that I would be so excited when Jeff Gordon retired, I'm having a hard time coming to terms with after this year we're not going to see him in the No. 24."


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