At 5 p.m. Friday evening, in Daytona Beach, FL, a long, painful journey will pass its key checkpoint. Yes, there is still plenty of healing left for Tony Stewart's right leg, devastated in a sprint car accident last August 5; he has stated that he is only about 65% recovered from the crash that cost him the last 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season and that a full recovery is likely anot year away. As he takes to the Daytona International Speedway in the opening practice session for Saturday's Sprint Unlimited, however, Stewart will have completed the often rough road from an ambulance leaving an Iowa dirt track to the seat of his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.
As the three-time Sprint Cup champion gets back into his element, so too will the legions of fans who back the man known as Smoke.
There's nothing quite like being a Tony Stewart fan. We are, quite simply, the black sheep of the NASCAR family. Like our driver, we wear the black hat, and we wear it with pride. We carry ourselves with a certain swagger, much the same as our hero as he walks through a garage area or pit lane, that you don't find with any other fanbase in NASCAR racing.
All of that was threatened after the accident, lost along with Stewart for the remainder of the season. A handful of fans, though nothing resembling a majority, feared it lost forever. Some couldn't bear to watch another lap of competition as other drivers - first Max Papis, then Austin Dillon, and finally Mark Martin - took turns wheeling the No. 14 in his stead. Those of us who did keep watching were still as lost as an Easter egg without Stewart on the track for the first time since the 1998 finale at Atlanta.
No current fanbase with the exception of Brian Vickers' has really dealt with anything similar, and I say from bitter experience that they should count their blessings. Yes, Denny Hamlin missed four early-season races last year and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his two-race absence in October 2012, but their fans weren't cruelly thrust into the offseason - which already feels impossibly long despite being the shortest of any major North American sport - four months prematurely. Hamlin's languish in mediocrity after his return from the back injury that ruined his campaign was still better than being left on the sidelines for the balance of the season, and he of course managed to end his own nightmare with a win in the season-finale at Homestead.
The last six months provided plenty of opportunity for Stewart's critics to fire salvo after salvo in the direction of the 42-year-old Hoosier, from those criticizing his barnstorming to the jilted fans of a driver who has earned his famous ire at one point or another citing karma and any other bit of petty ridiculousness they could think of. It also provided plenty of opportunity for his supporters to drown the naysayers out, with longtime racing scribes who understand what makes a race driver tick defending his decision to take his talents to the dirt tracks of Small Town, USA. The fans also got in on the action, outdueling Jeff Gordon's partisans in an online vote to land Stewart's visage on the cover of the new NASCAR '14 video game. While that victory might not have been as sweet as, for instance, Stewart's triumph in the FedEx 400 at Dover last June (his last win to date), it still felt pretty darn good.
Perhaps none of the 48 wins Stewart has already achieved in a Sprint Cup career that will unquestionably see him enshrined in NASCAR's Hall of Fame on his first ballot will be quite as sweet as the first checkered flag he takes in his return from injury, especially if that first win happens to be the 56th Daytona 500. It is hard to imagine a more fitting comeback than for him to finally claim that elusive Daytona 500 win in his very first points-paying race since that career-threatening accident.
Regardless of how the Great American Race and Saturday night's 75-lap preliminary before it turn out, Tony Stewart fans will be putting to good use a hard-learned lesson that every fan should take to heart: never take a lap your favorite driver runs for granted, because you never know what lap might be their last for a while. Those of us who wear the 14 on our sleeves never in a million years would have dreamed that Speedweeks 2014 would roll around and we would still be stuck on the 160th and final lap of last August's GoBowling.com 400 at the Pocono Raceway.
The last six months for Tony Stewart have been a kind of hell no race fan would wish on another, but that heartwrenching journey with our hero on the sidelines will finally reach its conclusion this afternoon. It may be a while yet before the swagger returns, but it will certainly re-emerge sooner or later. In the meantime, we are just happy to be back.
Hope you didn't miss us too much.