Stewart slowly regaining his swagger

Tony Stewart is as competitive at 1.7 mph as he is at 107, as evidenced by his meticulous approach to moving dirt.

In January, Stewart attended the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the premier events in dirt midget car racing. But he didn't drive a race car. He drove a tractor, as a member of the track preparation unit. In that role, he and three others were charged with six days of diligent tilling, packing and grading.

Dirt tracks are graded beginning with the top groove, up near the outside wall, to drag the "cushion" -- a mound of dirt that plants the cars into the racing surface -- out onto the track. Past the grading, two types of tilling are used to reset the surface; one scratches the surface to loosen the dirt, and another digs a bit deeper if necessary. Then the track is watered down and rolled over with trucks to pack the dirt hard for the next race.

Most of Stewart's time was spent down low at the bottom of the track. At the Chili Bowl, the goal is to have moisture in the bottom groove and a slick surface through the middle leading up to a sturdy cushion.

This is an unsung talent and is of great importance: If the track crew screws up, the racing stinks. For Stewart and the boys, that Monday was a 13-hour day. Tuesday through Friday required six-hour shifts. Saturday -- race day -- was 12 hours.

"Him and the others worked together and communicated," Chili Bowl promoter Emmett Hahn said. "Especially on Saturday, when you start hot-lapping at 10:30 that morning and the feature isn't over 'til 11 that night, it's like a setup on a race car.

"You're trying to figure out what you need at the end of the race. That's what you're doing with the track -- how do you get it to the best it can be at the end?"

Stewart loved it.

"If you look at the role I played, I had 330 guys that relied on me and three other guys to give them a great racetrack each night," he said. "So I was just as competitive doing track prep as I was being in a race car. I enjoyed the pressure that was behind it. There was a lot of pressure to be sure we did our jobs right."

They did it well. Competitors, Stewart said, complimented the racetrack early and often. And Hahn was so impressed he asked him to return next year in the same capacity. Stewart expects to do so.

"He didn't spin it out, not one time!" Hahn howled. "He did great! I'll have him back -- as long as he doesn't want a raise."

Stewart won the Chili Bowl twice as a driver. Sprint car racing is his greatest passion, but he said, "It's going to be a long, long time before you see me back [driving] one."

He stresses that this doesn't bother him. He stresses his offseason was calm and went as planned. He stresses there is no void.

"Pretty much anything I do, I carry that competitive spirit," he said. "Even though I didn't race -- and didn't race there last year either -- it didn't tear me up to not be in a race car."

His mere presence is important to the community.

"Tony is absolutely, hands-down more responsible for the growth of open-wheel racing than any single person," Hahn said. "Whether he's racing, owning teams, owning racetracks, he has put back more than anyone, when it goes back to short-track racing.

"I love Tony Stewart for Tony Stewart the person. He's just a down-to-earth, hardcore racer, and I love him."

The past two years have been very difficult for Stewart. In 2013, he shattered his right leg in a horrific sprint car wreck in Iowa. He swerved to miss competitor Josh Higday, a split-second decision that Higday told ESPN saved his life.

Eighteen months and several surgeries later, Stewart finally can walk without a noticeable limp. One more surgery, he said, remains next winter to remove the titanium rod in his leg.

August presented a far tougher blow, one Stewart said will affect his life forever. While racing in upstate New York, a sprint car Stewart was driving struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. Ward had wrecked on the previous lap and exited his car to confront Stewart. He walked down the track and into Stewart's path.

Grief-stricken in the aftermath, Stewart missed three Sprint Cup races. In September, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing by a grand jury. Ward's toxicology report showed that he was under the influence of marijuana.

As a new NASCAR season dawns, Stewart has the air of confidence and sarcasm that so long defined him. He had lost that during the past two years.

"How could it not change you? Just looking at him you knew he wasn't right," said Kevin Harvick, one of Stewart's closest friends who won the 2014 Sprint Cup title in a Stewart-owned stock car. "Now he's got that bounce back in his step again. He didn't even have that because he could hardly even walk."

In the aftermath of Ward's death last summer, Harvick was among Stewart's staunchest allies. When critics took aim, Harvick fought back, reminding all who would listen of Stewart's generosity, that Stewart gives often and wants no recognition for it.

Now, Harvick said, Stewart must focus that generosity in a new direction.

"He has to put as much effort into himself as he always puts into others," Harvick said. "He had to dig deep in the effort of getting himself right. I'm thrilled to see that he did.

"There is a new perception for him on life, but we want to see that same fire back inside the race car. Everybody in this company is dedicated to seeing our guy back in Victory Lane, racing up front."

At Stewart-Haas Racing's Christmas party in December, Stewart stood and addressed the entire company, saying he is ready to put the past two years behind him and never talk about them again.

"I don't have to prove anything to anybody," Stewart said. "I want to win for me."