It was the first day of official race weekend track action of 2014 for NASCAR, with drivers eligible for entry into the Sprint Unlimited exhibition event getting the chance to conduct two practice sessions.

With severe weather (and even a minor earthquake) affecting the south east United States, some teams were not fully in attendance as crew personnel were still making their way to the 2.5-mile high speed tri-oval, which will also stage the first Sprint Cup Series championship race of the year on Sunday February 23.

However the undoubted main attraction of the day wasn't going to allow his long-awaited return to the race car to be delayed a single minute longer, with Tony Stewart keen to get back in the seat following more than six months on the sidelines following an accident in a regional racing event last August that left him with a double fracture of the right leg.

"I'm actually more comfortable sitting in a car than I am laying in bed at the end of the day," he said prior to his first run at Daytona. "You'd think having the ability to lay in bed, you get comfortable. I've never spent so much time laying in bed feeling uncomfortable in my life."

And after the run, Stewart reported no problems whatsoever: "There was zero percent pain in the car," Stewart insisted. "That was nice. We'll see what it feels like at 9 o'clock tonight, but so far, so good. That was better than I was hoping for, honestly.

"I thought we would have some kind of ache or pain, but it was like putting on an old pair of shoes," he added. "Once we got the relief of knowing that we weren't hurting anywhere, it was just joy of being back out there again.

"It feels like I was in it a week ago already, so I was pleasantly surprised by that," he continued, adding that it had been straight down to business dealing with the other drivers out on the track during the session such as Denny Hamlin.

"Denny pushed me on the frontstretch and we got a little wiggly, and it was crazy how it just felt like it was yesterday we were doing the same thing," said Stewart. "For somebody that hadn't been in the car, it sure doesn't feel like I haven't been in the car."

Hamlin went on to set the fastest lap of the day on Friday in the later of the two practice sessions available to the Unlimited entry field after putting in a time of 45.030s (199.867mph) in the #11 Joe Gobbs Racing Toyota, just half a tenth faster than Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had topped the earlier daytime session with a time of 45.358s (198.421mph) in the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, 0.038s ahead of Hamlin's JGR team mate Kyle Busch.

Stewart finished in tenth place in the initial session and improved one spot in the second, but for now setting fast times is not as important as getting his feel for the car back and checking that all is well with his leg - which the 42-year-old admitted is still far from fully healed.

"We're about 65 per cent right now," he said, adding that his doctors admitted that it would be another year before he was back to 100 per cent. "There are so many gaps in the bone: a hairline fracture didn't have far to grow the rest of the way, but when you have pieces that are missing, it's got to regenerate that bone."

But that shouldn't affect his driving: "With the titanium rod in there, we have the strength we need. The actual physical healing, it's going to take a little longer."

Stewart expects to compete in the Unlimited race on Saturday night, which is an event he's won three times before in the past. A non-points scoring event outside the Sprint Cup championship, it's reserved for 18 drivers who either won a pole last season or who are previous winners of the race.

Sunday sees the start of qualifying for the first actual Cup race of 2014, next weekend's Daytona 500. Although NASCAR has announced a complete overhaul of qualifying for the upcoming season, Daytona's unique system of setting the grid has been ring-fenced.

Only the front row of the Daytona 500 will be set by Sunday's track times, with the rest of the initial qualifying order being used to set the starting line-up of the two Duel races held on Thursday night, the outcome of which will set the rest of the starting grid for the first Cup race of the year.

The first Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races of the season will also be held in the coming week, next Friday and Saturday respectively.

See full Unlimited practice times from Friday.



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