Tony Stewart #SmokeWillRise

With snow falling as teams departed North Carolina for the warmth of Daytona Beach, Fla., the summer of 2013 seemed a long time ago, where hot and humid days ran together.

But there’s one date in particular – Monday, Aug. 5 – that stands out for those at Stewart-Haas Racing and the NASCAR industry as a whole. It was late in the evening when at a dirt track in Iowa, Tony Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS he co-owns with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, crashed his sprint car and flipped, breaking his right tibia and fibula.

The day prior, Stewart finished ninth in the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. It was Stewart’s 521st career Sprint Cup start, all made consecutively since his Sprint Cup debut Feb. 14, 1999 in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

That Stewart would miss the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season and not return to a racecar until Feb. 14, 2014 – the opening day of practice for Sprint Cup cars at Budweiser Speedweeks – wasn’t something people gave much thought to…until they had to.

It was strange to see the likes of Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin wheeling Stewart’s signature Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet. But as a new NASCAR season dawns, familiarity returns. Stewart, perhaps better known by his nickname “Smoke”, is back.

#SmokeWillRise isn’t just a hashtag. It’s the return of one of the sport’s best – behind the wheel of a racecar and behind the microphone of a press conference.

After a 15-race layoff, Stewart will make Sprint Cup career start No. 522 in the 56th running of the Daytona 500 Feb. 23. And after 15 Daytona 500 starts where winning the “Great American Race” has proven elusive for Stewart, his chances in this year’s Daytona 500 are perhaps his best yet.

In what could very well be a “Sweet 16” for the ages, Stewart enters his 16th Daytona 500 with a new crew chief, new teammates and a new hunger to drive his racecar better and faster than the 42 others who will join him on Daytona’s vast 2.5-mile oval.

Stewart has already proven himself, as his 48 career, point-paying Sprint Cup wins attest. And he’s proven himself at Daytona in particular, where Stewart is second on the track’s all-time win list with 19 overall victories – rivaling only the late Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and is part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.

But missing from Stewart’s win totals is a Daytona 500 victory. It’s a trophy Stewart covets, and one he’s come agonizingly close to attaining.

Now, after overcoming the agony of a broken leg, Stewart is hungry to return to his rightful place in a racecar. It’s appropriate that Stewart’s return comes on NASCAR’s biggest stage, where to the victor go the spoils, and one’s hunger can be satisfied by the sweet taste of victory.