Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart walks to his garage before a practice session at Daytona International Speedway on Friday. Stewart has not raced in more than six months since he broke two bones in his leg in an August sprint-car crash. (John Raoux / Associated Press / February 14, 2014)

Stewart also nurtures an "us-against-them" theme that makes his followers feel set apart. He once dedicated a victory to "every one of those fans in the stands that pulls for me every week and take all the bull from everybody else."

Yet, no one in NASCAR is more concerned about keeping his sponsors happy than Stewart because he co-owns his team with Gene Haas, head of Haas Automation, a maker of machine-tool equipment based in Oxnard.

And what makes Stewart's comeback this year more notable is that he's also juggling major changes at Stewart-Haas.

A three-car team last year with Stewart, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, the team parted ways with Newman after announcing plans to bring aboard Kevin Harvick, who had more confirmed sponsorship.

Stewart said at the time his team couldn't also keep Newman and expand to four cars. But while Stewart was recuperating from his crash, Haas, using his company as a sponsor, recruited 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch to make it a four-driver team.

At the media tour last month, Stewart acknowledged that all four drivers have "alpha personalities" and there's widespread curiosity to see if they'll get along as teammates.

But Stewart told reporters that while "the majority of you guys are leaning on that angle of, 'It's got a great opportunity to be a disaster,' we look at it as a great opportunity to be a huge positive. We're a great support system for each other."

Stewart said the broken bones in his leg would be only 65% healed by the Daytona 500, but doctors put a titanium rod in his leg for added strength.

He'll need it for the 200-lap race, where drivers seldom take their right foot off the gas around the high-banked, 2.5-mile speedway.

It's also a track where multi-car crashes are not uncommon because the cars run close together, and there's apprehension about how well Stewart would endure another accident.

But late Friday, after taking his first laps around Daytona in practice for the Sprint Unlimited race, Stewart told the media he felt "zero percentage of pain in the car."

"That was better than I was hoping for," he said. "It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again."

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes