In most ways, he was typical Tony: sharp-witted, joking, determined, showing no regrets -- and no fear. But he was also different in other, subtler ways during his nearly 90-minute press conference on Tuesday at Stewart-Haas Racing in Huntersville, N.C.
It was Stewart's first public appearance since he suffered a broken leg in a Sprint car accident 29 days earlier, and he admitted to the gathered reporters that he "actually missed you guys." That statement surely underscored how much he pines to be back at the track and in the thick of the NASCAR action. If his recovery stays on schedule, he should be able to climb back into a racecar in January.
While dealing with the most significant injury of his racing career -- Stewart has been bedridden for much of the time since his crash -- he's also become more reflective on his life. He has competed in as many as 70 Sprint car races a year at small tracks around the country, but this accident -- which surely didn't please his sponsors -- will cause him to reduce his midweek racing schedule in 2014.
Stewart gave a play-by-play of the accident for reporters on Tuesday. He was leading with five laps to go in a winged Sprint car race at Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa on August 5 when a lapped car in front of him spun, whipping up a cloud of dust. Stewart could not see where the car was, but like Cole Trickle in the famous scene in Days of Thunder, Stewart kept his foot down and mashed on the gas, hoping to blaze through the dust unscathed.
Instead, he smashed into the out-of-control car and flipped. He never lost consciousness, but he immediately felt that his right leg was numb. The torque tube -- a pipe between the engine and rear end that contains the drive shaft -- had struck Stewart's leg. Though his driver's suit remained intact, he could tell that bones had pierced the skin. He'd suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula.
It is Stewart's hope that this wreck will spark a safety revolution in the winged Sprint cars, much as Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 led to far safer racing in NASCAR's Cup series.
Though he was just given crutches, Stewart has been in a wheelchair since the accident. He has been staying in Charlotte with his longtime business manager and friend Eddie Jarvis and Jarvis's wife, Dana. A parade of drivers and friends has flowed past his bedside for nearly two months. Stewart joked that he's been sleeping 20 hours a day.
"The thing is you've got to live life," he said. "You can't spend your whole life trying to guard against something happening. If you do that, in my opinion, you've wasted your time. We're all here a short amount of time in the big picture, and I'm somebody that wants to live life. I'm not somebody that wants to sit there and say, 'I've got to guard against this and I've got to worry about that.'
"I mean, if I got in a race car and didn't wear a helmet and didn't wear seatbelts, that would be dangerous, and that's being foolish. We don't do that. But I'm going to live my life. I'm going to take full advantage of whatever time I've got on this earth. I'm going to ride it out to the fullest and I'm going to get my money's worth. You can bet your butt on that."
Will this change Stewart as a driver when he fires the engine in his No. 14 Chevy for the Daytona 500 next February? Will it make him less likely to put his car in harm's way? He has always been one of the most aggressive drivers in the Cup series, but serious wrecks usually have had a way of diminishing a driver's willingness to take chances on the track, something that's required to win races.
It's far too early to know the answer to those questions, but based on his forceful statements on Tuesday, Stewart, the three-time Cup champion, appears well on his way to becoming, well, Typical Tony.