DOVER, DE - OCTOBER 01:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Nature's Bakery Brownie/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, walks through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Citizen Solider 400 at Dover International Speedway on October 1, 2016 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tony Stewart says his presence in owner meetings feels ‘like an episode of Sesame Street’

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FORT WORTH, Texas – The end of Tony Stewart‘s Sprint Cup racing career is less than six weeks away, but the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing has already gotten a taste of what the life of a full-time owner will be like.

‘The fun thing is I’ve been to a couple of the owners meetings and it’s pretty cool to sit in the room with Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs and those guys,” Stewart said Wednesday at Texas Motor Speedway.

But the three-time Sprint Cup champion said his attendance made the meetings with giants of the auto racing industry feel “like an episode of ‘Sesame Street.'”

“There’s one thing in the room that doesn’t belong and it’s not like the others and they point at me,” said Stewart, who was holding his annual “Smoke Show” Fantasy Camp benefiting Speedway Children’s Charities.

But even though he’s been co-owner of SHR since 2009, Stewart still doesn’t feel like an owner.

“I won’t say I’m a part of that group yet because I still feel like I’m just a driver right now,” said Stewart, who leaves his NASCAR driver’s seat behind on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “To be able to work with those guys on behalf of the sport I think is going to be a lot of fun.”

At some point in the next six weeks will be Stewart’s final Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting. Stewart is one of nine drivers on the council that was founded last year. With him on it are Brad KeselowskiJimmie Johnson, defending series champion Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

“The thing that I’m most excited about with the drivers council is I feel like it’s a good group of guys in there right now,” Stewart said. “I feel like their mindset and their ability to work together for the reason and the right causes and goals.”

Stewart’s presence on the council has had an impact this season. NASCAR’s year-long odyssey regarding lug nuts began with Stewart’s rant about the issue in April.

In January he criticized NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France for not have a presence in the meetings. France then attended an April meeting in Talladega, an act appreciated by the drivers.

He’s also been an encouraging voice for young drivers like Larson, who admitted that at first he didn’t feel deserving of a spot on the council.

“If you don’t say anything, why are you on this?’’ Stewart told Larson. “You have an opinion, speak up.’’

Stewart has opinions. On everything. But he recently said he’s ready to no longer be the voice of the garage.

Is there any opinion “Smoke” has kept to himself, waiting to drop on the drivers council right before he puts both feet into his role as an owner?

“I’m going to save that for when I get out of the car at Homestead I think,” Stewart joked at TMS. “The hard part is I wish we could tell you guys all the stuff that’s discussed in it but it’s not the right thing to do.”

Stewart is “proud” of what the council has accomplished in it first two years and is a little surprised at how unselfish its members have been.

“It would be really easy in our sport to be selfish and try to work on things that you think are going to benefit you,” Stewart said. “But the driver council does a really good job of not doing that. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about that, but I guess to a certain degree a little bit I was surprised that everybody really cared more about the sport than they were about what their individual organizations were working on.”

Clint Bowyer looks to be relevant again

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet, sits in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — Clint Bowyer can be loud, wild and ready for the next good time, but after a season that felt as arduous as Odysseus’ journey, Bowyer’s voice softens when he states a goal for this season.

“I sure hope you are watching me,’’ Bowyer said as he stood next to his No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. “At the end of the day, relevancy in this sport is everything, and I’ve lost that a little bit. Not a little bit. A lot.’’

Four years after finishing runner-up in the championship, Bowyer could barely finish in the top 20 in races last year for HScott Motorsports, a team no longer competing in NASCAR.

It was a stunning fall for driver who seemed on solid ground after he signed a three-year contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing in May 2014, following back-to-back finishes in the top 10 in points.

Fourteen months later, though, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season.

Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)

A month after that, Bowyer signed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Tony Stewart in 2017. That left Bowyer without a ride for 2016. With few options, Bowyer went to HScott Motorsports and suffered through a season that saw him record three top-20 finishes in the last 19 races.

“Was it the best thing in the world for me?’’ Bowyer said of last season. “Probably not. It probably wasn’t healthy as a matter of fact, but, nonetheless, this deal was worth it. This opportunity was worth whatever you had to go through, whether it was sitting at home or getting into something. It didn’t matter, I signed on for this thing. I want to be in this car because I knew it was my soonest opportunity to be in the best possible situation to win races.’’

But it has been four years since he last won, a span of 149 races.

He was asked Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center if he is any good still.

“That’s a real legitimate question,’’ Bowyer said. “You just don’t know. I think the last time I was in a good car, I was good. I think that I’m a smarter driver than I was three years ago. I think I’m plenty capable of winning races. I love what I see at Stewart-Haas.’’

His team was set up for him. Mike Bugarewicz gained experience last year in his rookie season as a crew chief for Stewart. That should help Bugarewicz in the transition to his new driver. Bowyer and Bugarewicz started talking weekly in the second half of last season, discussing what setups Bowyer liked, track conditions, tires, etc. Anything to learn each other and help their communication this season.

“For me, that driver/crew chief relationship is everything and you’ve got to get that established,’’ Bowyer said.

Bowyer also can lean on some familiar faces at Stewart-Haas Racing. He was a teammate to Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer was at Michael Waltrip Racing when Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers was there. Billy Scott, crew chief for Danica Patrick, was Bowyer’s crew chief, for part of the 2015 season.

About the only person he doesn’t know well at SHR is Kurt Busch.

“We just never really hung out,’’ Bowyer said of the 2004 champion. “He’s the one guy that I really think has more raw talent than about anybody out there. I want to go out and learn as much as I can. I know he can really diagnose what’s going on with the car. The depth he goes in with the debrief is probably a lot higher than I’ve had in the past.’’

That’s just part of the culture at Stewart-Haas Racing that has Bowyer excited.

“They don’t take second as an option,’’ Bowyer said. “They go and work hard and figure out how to go win these races.’’

No longer does he have to worry about finishing 25th (his average finish last year was 23.6).

“With equipment like this, if you’re 25th or something at the end of the day … there’s a reason for it,’’ Bowyer said. “That’s the breath of fresh air. It’s not expected. It’s not going to happen.’’

Told that Stewart sees Bowyer as calmer, the 37-year-old replies that he’s “confident again.

“When 2016 finally came to an end, I was looking at Dale (Earnhardt) Jr and Amy having a good time (at their New Year’s Eve wedding), and I’m like I can’t wait for tomorrow morning,’’ Bowyer said. “Just get all that brushed off, get it behind you and … focus on the task at the hand and using this wonderful opportunity to be good and great again.’’

And relevant.

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Ford executive encouraged by changes at Roush Fenway Racing

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Roush Performance Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — The Global Director of Ford Performance says he’s optimistic Roush Fenway Racing will be more competitive this season because of leadership changes that “embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing has been shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs each of the past two seasons and last won a race in 2014.

Ford’s Dave Pericak said Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center that Roush Fenway Racing is in a better position to take advantage of Ford’s technical support after offseason changes.

“I think Roush has made all of the right, now, decisions and changes within their organization to truly embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization and putting the technology into these cars as opposed to just bolting some stuff together and going out on the racetrack,’’ Pericak told NBC Sports.

“I think there has been a huge acknowledgement on their side that there has to be a shift within their own organization, a shift within their leadership. We’ve helped them on a technical side of things to get their equipment up to speed. I’m optimistic that this year you’re going to see all of that coming together and you should see better performance out of that Roush organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing opens the season with new personnel in executive levels. The team announced in late November that Kevin Kidd, who had been the organization’s Cup team manager, would become the competition director, and Tommy Wheeler, who oversaw the production of the organization’s Cup and Xfinity cars, would be the team’s operations director. The team also announced that Robbie Reiser, who had been general manager, was being reassigned.

The organization also is smaller this season. Roush downsized to a two-car operation with the departure of Greg Biffle. The team will have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as drivers and loaned Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty, a Chevrolet team, because there wasn’t a proper place to put him with a Ford team this year.

Stenhouse showed signs of progress early last season, climbing to 13th the points after the season’s fifth race before finishing the year 21st. Bayne placed 22nd and Biffle 23rd. The three drivers combined for zero wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.

The top-five and top-10 results were an increase from the 2015 season. Roush’s drivers combined for four top fives and nine top 10s that season.

Roush is one of two Ford teams downsizing this year. Richard Petty Motorsports will field one entry this year instead of two. Pericak said such moves could help both teams.

“The downsizing that you’ve seen is a way for us to re-focus those teams and get back to the fundamentals and get them back on the right path,” Pericak said. “You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in areas that you need to focus and fix what you need.’’

Something else that could help Roush and RPM is the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp. The move gives Ford two top-tier teams in SHR and Team Penske. Some of the information gleaned by those teams can be shared.

“I think when you look at that, it’s a very positive thing to bring that level of competition to your group, everyone is going to benefit from that,’’ Pericak said. “And the other thing we’ve been working strongly on is that one Ford approach, sharing where sharing makes sense.’’

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New Cup team to field Daytona 500 entry

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Gaunt Brothers Racing plans to enter all four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series restrictor-plate races this season, beginning with the Daytona 500.

D.J. Kennington will seek for the qualify for the season-opening race. The team has no charter and is not guaranteed a starting spot.

Other non-chartered teams that have announced plans to vie for a Daytona 500 starting spot are: Tommy Baldwin Racing (Elliott Sadler) and car owner Mark Beard (Brendan Gaughan). Michael Waltrip also has stated on Twitter he will compete but has not offered any other details.

Gaunt Brothers Racing is owned by Marty Gaunt, president of Triad Racing Technologies.

“With the recent unveiling of the 2018 Toyota Camry, we feel that now is the right time to return to the racetrack,” said Gaunt, whose Triad engines powered five championship-winning Toyota drivers and contributed to multiple manufacturer championships at the NASCAR national level, in a statement.

The team competed in what is now the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in 2011. Gaunt Brothers Racing is fielding a Toyota Camry in partnership with Triad client RAB Racing, which is led by Robby Benton. RAB Racing will supply cars, shop space and technical support.

“Our aspirations will be no small task, but we know what we need to do to position ourselves to make this a successful effort,” Benton said in a statement. “We’ll transition over to the Daytona 500 after competing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona with our sports car program later this month.”

Kennington, who is from St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, is a two-time NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion. He made his Cup debut last fall at Phoenix International Raceway, placing 35th.

No driver has been announced for the team at the other three restrictor-plate races this season.

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NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 59: David Smith previewing the 2017 season

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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The makeup of a race weekend in 2017 is expected to look different, with some major enhancements expected to be announced soon for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

But the teams that will compete on the rebranded circuit will look very familiar.

While a NASCAR offseason normally is filled with personnel changes, many teams elected to stand pat for this season.

Why? That’s a topic explored by Motorsports Analytics founder David Smith in a recent column entitled “Welcome to 2016, Part 2, which was the subject of this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast.

Smith discussed the reasons why teams didn’t make changes and the reasons that perhaps some should have. He also floats some interesting possibilities for future moves (Chase Elliott and Chad Knaus? Cole Pearn to Team Penske?).

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

Stay tuned for time codes for easy referencing while listening to the podcast.