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Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon competing together for likely final time at Martinsville

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FORT WORTH, TEXAS – Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon entered Sprint Cup racing seven years apart, but they’ll be leaving together, just on very different terms.

Stewart and Gordon, winners of seven combined Sprint Cup titles, will make what is likely their last NASCAR start together this weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.

If you can’t help but feel we’ve gone through this before, well, we have.

“Keep in mind we thought we were doing that last year in the same scenario,” Tony Stewart said two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway during his “Smoke Show” fantasy camp to benefit the Speedway Children’s Charities. “Who knows, he might be here 10 more years at the rate he’s going.”

Gordon and Stewart made their original “last” start together in the November 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capping off Gordon’s farewell tour after 24 years on the circuit. Two months earlier, Stewart announced that 2016 would be his final season driving full-time in Sprint Cup after 18 full-time Cup seasons.

Stewart made it clear then that he did not want his final season to mirror Gordon’s, which consisted of gifts and special presentations by every track, including horses from Texas Motor Speedway.

“I’m not really that kind of guy,” Stewart said. “I’m content to go race and be around the racing community and the racing family and be around our fans. They can just send me a note from the track president and say, hey, thank you, and that’ll be sufficient for me.

“I think it’s been very fitting for Jeff. I don’t think I’m worthy of that kind of admiration because I think Jeff has really done so much for the sport that nobody will ever be able to do again.”

But as 2016 unfolded, Gordon wrote an unexpected epilogue in his racing story, while Stewart’s final chapter was shortened. A pre-season back injury kept Stewart from making his first start of 2016 until the ninth race at Richmond International Raceway.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a season-ending concussion in June that didn’t present symptoms until July, Gordon was enlisted by Hendrick Motorsports to drive his No. 88 Chevrolet in eight races. That’s eight more races for “Smoke” and “Wonder Boy” to write history together.

“I haven’t thought about it a lot, to be honest,” Stewart said at TMS. “No more than I did last year. But it’s cool to run (against him) again.”

Aside from giving the command to start engines for the Sprint All-Star Race in May, the only real ceremonial moment Stewart has taken part in was at the July 24 Brickyard 400, Gordon’s first race in the No. 88.

The two drivers, who have both called Indiana home at one point in their lives, did a post-race parade lap around the 2.5-mile track they’ve won seven combined races at as a salute to the fans and the state that gave birth to their Hall of Fame racing careers.

“The Indy deal was special because it was Indy,” Stewart said. “He lived in Pittsboro, he wasn’t born there, but he lived in Pittsboro a lot of his life and he was 20 minutes away, I was 45 minutes away from there (in Columbus, Indiana). That’s a special place to us. It was neat to share that together.”

And they’ll get to share their final Martinsville start together.

Gordon is the active all-time wins leader at the short track with nine victories, including his final Cup win there last October.

Stewart has three wins there, including one during his third and final championship campaign in 2011.

Entering Sunday’s race Stewart and Gordon have combined for 1,418 Sprint Cup Series starts, 142 wins, 96 poles, 37,751 laps led and seven championships.

Here’s a look at the tracks Stewart and Gordon have enjoyed much success at together:

Martinsville Speedway – Gordon (nine wins), Stewart (three wins)

Watkins Glen International – Stewart (five wins), Gordon (four wins)

Daytona International Speedway – Gordon (six wins), Stewart (four wins)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (two wins)

Sonoma Raceway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (three wins)

Dover International Speedway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (three wins)

Bristol Motor Speedway to give Food City 500 tickets to victims of November wildfires

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Thousands of people continue to rebuild their lives following last November’s devastating wildfires in east Tennessee.

Many lost everything, including their homes, cars, businesses and possessions, particularly in the Gatlinburg and Sevierville areas. Many victims were left with just the clothes they were wearing at the time they fled the fires, which charred over 17,000 acres, claimed 14 lives and injured nearly 200.

The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway are reaching out to give those impacted by the fires a few hours of enjoyment and try to bring some smiles back on their faces.

The track announced Monday that, in conjunction with the Dollywood Foundation’s “My People Fund,” it will give away four tickets per family for the April 23 Food City 500 NASCAR Cup race at BMS to area residents impacted by the fires.

“We wanted to do something nice for these folks that hopefully will help brighten their day,” said Jerry Caldwell, BMS executive vice president and general manager. “It’s incredible to see the outpouring of support from the region and we wanted to do our part to show our neighbors that we care.

“Gatlinburg and Sevier County hold a special place in the hearts of all NASCAR fans and especially all of us here at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

The “My People Fund” is a charitable outreach of singer/actress Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation. It provides those impacted by the fires up to $1,000 per month for up to six months to help victims get back on their feet.

The wildfires literally reached the doorstep of Parton’s Dollywood amusement park, but caused only minimal damage.

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Ryan: Enough with the hand-wringing on retaliation, here are your clearly drawn lines

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The most important line in NASCAR lately doesn’t involve when the checkered flag waves and definitively determines the winner of a race.

No, this line is much hazier: The apparently nebulous border between being regarded a well-heeled, responsible citizen of NASCAR Nation who still gets a point across and (gasp!) an irresponsible scofflaw who indiscriminately commits revenge in the least noble of ways.

In the wake of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon escaping punishment for attempting to handle their own administering of justice, it seems everyone is searching for a line on where the line is in NASCAR …

Or if it exists at all.

These are desperate times, kids!

(Especially with the Cup Series headed to Martinsville Speedway this weekend.)

But fear not for those worried about the future of the republic in Charlotte and Daytona. I’ve got a handy chart that delineates the transgressions that will earn scorn.

Ready? Let’s draw some lines!

If you intentionally wreck a guy (out of the lead) while nine laps down, that’s bad.

Expect a two-race suspension or worse.

Also, feel free to avoid poking Brian France on Twitter about it.

If you intentionally wreck a guy while racing for position, that’s not as bad, particularly if it’s well-disguised.

It might not earn you a punishment, and if it does, it probably won’t be so drastic.

If you are traveling roughly 50 mph and lightly pin another car against the wall and cause so much “damage”, that car still finishes on the lead lap, that is mostly OK the first time (but probably not the second).

It helps if you also finish well behind that car (which ruined your shot at winning with a rookie mistake).

But there will be some slight punishment: Be prepared to spend some quality NASCAR couch time with Steve O’Donnell and your favorite series director discussing the merits of getting angry under caution.

If you swing at a guy but don’t hit him flush and then fall down and wind up the only guy who is bleedingyou only will have to live with your injured pride.

If you swing and hurt someone or break their bones, you will face some sort of penalty based on the severity of the injury.

You know, as you would for any sort of physical assault in the real world.

If you scream at another guy and get held back by your team in a shoving match without much violence that goes viral, your sponsor might give you a bonus for the millions of extra impressions. But don’t expect any residuals from the tracks that incessantly use those highlights to sell tickets.

Good news, though! You won’t be fined as you would have been 11 years ago.

If you walk onto a hot track and angrily gesture at a driver who wrecked you, be prepared to write a five-figure check and then justifiably wonder about how that money is being spent.

Now we know where the lines are. That wasn’t hard!

Kidding aside, there is only one line that truly needs delineation, and it applies not just to NASCAR but to everything in life.

Every action has consequences. Choose your actions wisely.

A few other leftovers from the past week and weekend at Auto Club Speedway:

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Courtesy of some salient points made by NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, driver fraternization and prerace introductions were a hot topic on social media.

For some, it prompted the memory of a heated exchange between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin after a dustup in a 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

“You don’t have to actually hit me,” Patrick said. “I like you, Denny. You’re my friend.”

“I know, you’re my friend,” Hamlin said. “I get it.”

There’s no removing the friendships formed in the motorhome lot from modern-day NASCAR, where most of the drivers in the Cup series are raising families on the road, and teams want to simplify and streamline their lives outside the car.

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But how much of a Chinese wall needs to be built between the personal interactions of the motorhome lot and the professional workings of the garage?

At the very least, Letarte’s idea is worthy of being considered by tracks. There’s enough time for socialization throughout the course of a race weekend, and it probably is best done outside the view of the public.

When drivers walk out of their motorhome lot and underneath signs such as this one on the left at Texas Motor Speedway (“The greatest drivers and mechanics in the world work here!”), everyone’s gloves should go on, and their guards should go up.

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–Monster Energy is based in Corona, California, about a 30-minute drive to Auto Club Speedway, and the new series title sponsor made its presence felt at the 2-mile oval.

Monster erected a major hospitality display in the infield, and Clint Bowyer was among the drivers who took a tour of company headquarters.

“We had a ton of fun over there,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “The brass there was eager to meet us and bench race, which is always fun with any organization you meet.

“When the brass (wants) your perspective on the job they’re doing and what they can do to further enhance the impact, it’s a breath of fresh air. We definitely had that. I do think you’ll continue to see a bigger splash as we go on.”

There were some misgivings that Monster might have made too big a splash, however, with a drivers meeting entrance at Fontana that resembled the sort of club found in nearby Hollywood (minus the midday sunshine).

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The University of South Carolina’s first Final Four run will have much resonance in NASCAR, which has strong connections to the Palmetto State. NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bud Moore and Cotton Owens hail from South Carolina.

Late Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR PR executive Jim Hunter played football and baseball at South Carolina, and NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett was offered a golf scholarship there.

Among those active in NASCAR who hail from South Carolina: Kerry Tharp, Darlington Raceway president; Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler (and an active Gamecocks fan on Twitter); Jason Ratcliff (crew chief for Matt Kenseth);

Donnie Wingo (crew chief for Landon Cassill); Steve Addington (longtime crew chief);Michael Nelson (vice president of operations at Team Penske); Jeremy Clements (Xfinity driver for family’s Spartanburg-based team).

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–It might have been prompted by being the leadoff to his media availability Friday, but the answer had the sort of edge unaccustomed from Jimmie Johnson.

“People are questioning your performance this year. Are you guys at a point where you could get that seventh win here?” asked Kickin’ The Tires.net editor Jerry Jordan (in a blunt but fair question).

“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean, come on,” Johnson immediately responded with a slight laugh, before telling Jordan, “I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever.  I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run.

“We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to.  Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point.  Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”

Of course, those turned out to be famous last words on a lost weekend in which Johnson crashed in practice, didn’t make a qualifying lap in a backup car and finished a nondescript 21st.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is right that it’s too early to ask too many questions about his lack of results. But his answer made it natural to wonder whether some questions have crossed his mind, too.

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Buried in the multimillion-dollar countersuit Kurt Busch filed last Friday against his former management agency was this nugget: When he entered into a 2010 contract extension with Sports Management Network, the firm received 4% of Busch’s base salary at Penske, or $250,000.

Kudos to colleague Dustin Long (who has more than two decades of experience combing through legal documents with these sorts of details) for noting that means Busch’s base salary was $6.25 million at Penske. Such driver compensation rarely comes to light.

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The best racing of the weekend was in the Xfinity race, which featured a stirring duel for the lead between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and then another fierce battle at the front in heavy traffic between winner Kyle Larson and Logano (who rallied three times from deep in the pack).

Yes, all those drivers are full-time Cup regulars. There are some who will make the case that should disqualify the Xfinity race from being evaluated as stellar, but it’s impossible to deny it delivered the highest entertainment value (regardless of who was racing the cars).

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–NASCAR’s Snapchat account Sunday was filled with Hollywood types pledging their allegiance to stock cars, and roughly four dozen celebrities were in the pits for the Auto Club 400.

This isn’t new for Fontana, which has a long history of trying to attract the beautiful people from the west side of Los Angeles (with mixed results). But it’s good to see NASCAR actively leveraging their attendance into something tangible (even if in the most ephemeral of social media mediums).

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Martinsville Speedway

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With NASCAR’s “West Coast Swing” over, the sport returns east this weekend with a visit to Martinsville Speedway.

While the Xfinity Series takes a week off, the Camping World Truck Series returns for its first race since March 4 at Atlanta.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Truck Series.

Cup Series – STP 500

There are 38 cars on the entry lists for the first Cup race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. A full field would be 40 cars. The last four races have had 39 entries.

Jimmie Johnson won in the Cup Series’ last visit to the half-mile track last October. Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the STP 500. Busch led 352 of 500 laps to earn his first Cup win at the short track.

Click here for the full entry list.

Truck Series – Alpha Energy Solutions 250

There are 32 entries on the Truck Series’ preliminary entry list. Four entries, the No. 12, the No. 63, the No. 83 and No. 99 do not have drivers attached yet.

Chase Elliott is the only Cup Series driver in the field. He will drive the No. 23 for GMS Racing. It’s his second Truck race of the year.

Justin Haley will make his first Truck start of the year driving the No. 24 for GMS Racing. Joe Nemechek makes his third start of the year in the No. 87.

Johnny Sauter won the Truck Series’ last Martinsville visit in October. Busch is the defending winner of this race. Busch started second and led 123 of 255 laps on the way to the victory.

Click here for the full entry list.

NASCAR will examine angle of inside wall Matt Kenseth hit

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A NASCAR executive said series officials will work with Auto Club Speedway officials to see if there is a way to alter the angle of the inside wall Matt Kenseth hit in Sunday’s Cup race.

After contact from behind, Kenseth slid down the track in Turn 2 and through the skid path, hitting the SAFER barrier on the inside wall.

Kenseth hit a portion of the wall that was angled toward the track. Safety equipment was stationed behind that wall.

“I am OK, but I wouldn’t say I was as OK as I was last week,’’ Kenseth radioed his team after the incident, referring to his hard hit at Phoenix when a tire went down and he slammed into the SAFER barrier.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” about Kenseth’s incident and the angle that Kenseth’s car hit.

“We’ll download all the data, in this case from the incident data recorder, we’ll talk to Matt, we will inspect the car for sure with all of our safety engineers and kind of combine all that data and look at the angle and the speed and scrub and look at all that data to make sure that we have the best possible outcome,’’ O’Donnell said.

“One of the things you pointed out was the angle of the wall. It’s positioned that way for the safety equipment, but are there tweaks we can make? We’ve done that numerous times in terms of you see a crash that you never thought would happen and it kind of opens some eyes and (you) say, ‘OK is there a better way to potentially angle this wall?’

“So that is something we’ll work with the speedway and our safety engineers and the race team to look at, thankful that everything worked out. There was a SAFER barrier, Matt got out and walked away, and as you guys said, you never want to see that angle, and if we can prevent that, we certainly will.’’

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