Stewart Bruised But Ready
March 20, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
And in spite of that unexpected trip to the hospital, Stewart plans to race in this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway – with no relief driver standing by or no worries about completing the entire event.
Heck, Stewart plans on winning at Bristol. And why not? He did it last August, so an accident isn’t going to slow him down.
“It’s my favorite track,” Stewart said. “Why shouldn’t I feel comfortable racing there?”
Stewart was leading the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 last Sunday when he came upon Buckshot Jones. Jones, though, slipped off Turn 2, and before Stewart could get past, Stewart rammed into Jones’ car.
Stewart slammed the outside wall, and after a lazy spin, was hit by the onrushing Jimmy Spencer. The impact knocked Stewart out for a few moments, and he had to be taken on a stretcher to an ambulance. He was airlifted to Carolinas Hospital System in Florence, S.C., for some tests and was kept overnight.
He was released the next day, and other than some soreness and a few bruises, Stewart is fine.
“I feel fine. It’s just the normal deal after a wreck,” Stewart said. "You’re going to feel sore and you’re going to have some bruises. The aftermath from my wreck was no different. But I’ve been cleared by the doctors to race and my intentions are to go out there and do my job this weekend.”
His job is to handle 500 laps around Bristol’s high-banked, half-mile concrete oval. It’s a demanding track, even for a driver in perfect physical condition. But Stewart isn’t too worried about being able to complete the full distance.
“Physically, I feel like I’m in good enough shape right now that I could handle it,” Stewart said. “It’s my favorite place to race at anyway. If I’m going to go somewhere a little bit banged up I’d rather go to my favorite place. To me, that’s comfortable.”
Stewart was anything but comfortable after the crash. You would imagine a fuming Stewart would have been incensed over wrecking after just getting the lead, but Stewart had other things on his mind – like the pain in his back.
And, remember, Stewart is trying to avoid distractions this season. Of course, going after Jones was out of the question. Not that he remembers much of the wreck anyway.
“I remember hitting Buckshot, and I remember hitting the wall,” Stewart said. “That’s about it. I’m told that Jimmy Spencer helped me out of the car.”
Stewart has gotten a lot of get-well wishes after the accident.
“It’s pretty impressive and eye-opening,” Stewart said. “From everyone at Home Depot to NASCAR to fellow drivers to the fans, the amount of calls, e-mails and just well-wishes was pretty overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a big deal, but the fact that so many people made a big deal out of it made me feel pretty good.”
The crash did set back Stewart a little bit in the points standings. After rallying from a last-place finish in the Daytona 500 with three straight top-five finishes – including a victory at Atlanta – Stewart finds himself 221 points behind Sterling Marlin in 12th place.
That’s not an insurmountable deficit, and Stewart said his team will just try to rally again.
“We’ve been running hard week-in and week-out,” Stewart said. “The good thing from our standpoint is that we’ve run well every week. I look at last week as just another bump in the road for us. We’ll just go back to work this week and take it one race at a time like we’ve been doing all year. We’re just going to stick to our program and control the things that we can control.”
Bristol is a good track for Stewart to try to get going again. In addition to last year’s victory, he’s finished second and fifth with 484 laps led in his six races there. The track reminds him a lot of Winchester and Salem, tracks in Indiana where Stewart raced open-wheel cars.
It can be a bruising track, with 43 cars jammed on a half-mile oval at 120 mph. But Stewart knows what it takes to win there.
“You’ve got to make sure that you keep the fenders on your car all day and that you’re not beating up your race car,” Stewart said. “If that means a guy gets underneath you and you’ve got to let him go, then that’s what you do. But at the same time, you still have to race hard and not give up track position and lap times because it doesn’t take long before you’re in lapped traffic. It’s a track where you need to be really aggressive, but at the same time, taking care of your equipment all day is key.”
The lapped traffic can be thick, but Stewart actually looks forward to it.
“You just have to be real patient,” Stewart said. “Most of the time they’re pretty good about letting you go. It’s hard. The track’s crowded. But I felt that in traffic was where The Home Depot team excelled at times last year. We seemed to get through traffic at the right times and we were able to pull away afterward. I actually look forward to lapped traffic because I’m able to use it to my advantage.”
Of course, lapped traffic is what sent Stewart to the hospital last Sunday – not that he remembers much about it.