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Smoke Stories: Friends, foes remember Tony Stewart

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A lot happened on Nov. 15, 1992.

Alan Kulwicki won his only Winston Cup title by 10 points over Bill Elliott, who won the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On the starting grid for the last time was Richard Petty, starting in his 1,184th Cup race, while a mustached kid named Jeff Gordon started his first.

Also on pit road was Tony Stewart, a 21-year-old sprint car driver from Columbus, Indiana, attending his first NASCAR race. Instead of a firesuit, he wore a $2,000 suit with a tie.

“I went from having a little bit of money from what I’d saved driving a race car to being a broke race car driver again, because I chose to try and impress people,” Stewart said. “I thought like I was wasting my time being down there, I thought there was no way I was going to get an opportunity to come do this.”

Twenty-four years later, the driver known as “Smoke” is ending an 18-year Sprint Cup career. Here are stories from some of the men Tony Stewart raced, fought and inspired.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL. - JULY 2: Team owner Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, celebrate winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Pepsi 400 on July 2, 2005 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. ( Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images )
Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs after winning the 2005 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

JOE GIBBS

In his Sprint Cup career, Stewart raced for two people. Joe Gibbs and himself.

Stewart caught the attention of Gibbs, a NASCAR owner since 1992, after two years of racing in the Xfinity and Indy Racing League, where he won the 1997 title for John Menard.

“A lot of people were talking about him,” says Gibbs. “He had a contract. So it was a long process of going through that, trying to work it out with the owners that had him at that point, then to work it out with him.”

When Gibbs sat down with Stewart for the first time, the driver known for his confidence and brashness had a “shocker” for the former NFL coach.

“He said, ‘I want to tell you something right now, I’m not ready for Cup … I want to run Xfinity for at least a year, maybe two years,'” Gibbs recalled. “I think he had a real strong feeling about himself. I think that’s one thing I remembered right off the bat, he said, ‘Hey, I’m not ready.'”

After another season of splitting time between Xfinity and the IRL, Stewart made the jump to Cup. Seven years after his trip to Atlanta, Stewart started the 1999 Daytona 500.

On Sept. 11, 1999, Stewart won his first of 49 Sprint Cup races at Richmond International Raceway.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 The Home Depot Toyota, speaks with teammate Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2008 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch prior to the 2008 Daytona 500. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

KYLE BUSCH

In his 10 Sprint Cup seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, 10 drivers had the distinction of calling Stewart a teammate for at least one race.

Kyle Busch was one of the last.

In 2008, Busch landed at JGR in the No. 18 that had been driven by Bobby Labonte and J.J. Yeley.

“Tony and I, when I first started Cup racing, didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye very well,” says Busch. “When we became teammates it was the best thing for us. We got a good chance to sit down talk to each other each and every week at our team meetings to understand one another. He was a huge part of the success at Joe Gibbs Racing that year and we got a good chance at learning each other’s personalities and seeing how similar we are.”

Busch’s favorite memory of being in the same stable as Stewart is their first race together in the Daytona 500. Stewart and Busch were leading on the final restart with three laps to go, attempting to fend off the Team Penske duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

“We stayed together and knew to work together and were on each other’s bumpers all day long and essentially that is probably what cost us the victory,” Busch said. “We didn’t want to vary from one another at all. I stayed with him and the outside blew our doors off at the end with Ryan Newman winning the race.”

In Stewart’s 49 Sprint Cup wins, four of them at Daytona, none were the Daytona 500.

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19, 2011 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart celebrates his 2011 win at Chicagoland Speedway, which kicked off his third and final Sprint Cup campaign. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Trevor Bayne

Stewart has a tendency to complain. Or at least exaggerate.

Prior to the start of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart famously said he was a waste of space in the playoff after not winning a race all season.

Stewart was still complaining right before the start of the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I always give him a hard time about this one specifically,” Trevor Bayne said. “We were on pit road with Leonard Wood, myself and Tony standing there talking. He is telling us how awful his race car is. He is going on and on, kind of like Sonoma earlier this year telling me how bad it is.

“Then he goes out and wins the race.”

Stewart would win four more races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to clinch his final Sprint Cup title in a historic duel with Carl Edwards.

MORE: Watch 2011 Homestead race tonight on NBCSN

Joey Logano

“California keeps coming to my mind,” Joey Logano says when asked for a favorite Stewart story. “That’s probably not the best memory.”

Logano and the rest of the Texas Motor Speedway media center break into laughter.

“At least we can laugh about it now,” Logano says.

The list of drivers who have been on the receiving end of Stewart’s wrath is long and distinguished.

Matt Kenseth at Bristol and Newman at Richmond are a couple. Logano joined them in 2013 at Auto Club Speedway when he violated Stewart’s No. 1 rule – don’t block.

A move by Logano on a late restart resulted in a pit road scuffle, a water bottle being thrown by Logano and a profanity laced TV interview by Stewart.

“If you were to say there’s one thing that makes Tony Stewart great, it’s the passion that he has, that he brings to the game,” says Logano, who succeeded Stewart in the JGR No. 20 in 2009.

Even with their disagreements, Logano has learned a lot in his nine years of competing against Stewart.

“He knows when to not beat up his car, he knows when to not make other drivers mad and when to just log some laps, and then he also knows that when it’s game time he becomes one of the most fierce competitors out there,” Logano said. “I think that’s kind of a cool trait that I’ve learned a lot from just following him and watching him.”

FADE OUT

Stewart’s 616th Sprint Cup start was shortened by rain.

After 293 laps in the AAA Texas 500, Stewart was 31st, five laps down and two races away from his NASCAR retirement.

Stewart walked from pit road into the garage and made a beeline for the gap between two haulers. Alone in the middle of the post-race chaos, watching Stewart walk away like a western anti-hero, stood a fan.

A stocky man with frizzy red hair, he wore a blue Chase Elliott shirt and an Elliott hat that sat crooked on his head.

“Thank you, Tony!” he called out.

Without slowing down, Stewart turned and waved before turning right and disappearing around the front of a hauler.

“That’s all I really wanted to see,” said the fan, to no one and everyone.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on possible restrictor plates in Brickyard 400

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The Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July will work as a testing ground for the future use of restrictor plates at the historic 2.5-mile track.

NASCAR announced earlier this week the July 22 race would be raced under the influence of the plates that have previously only been used at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and one Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

Depending on the effectiveness of the plates on the level of competition, they could be used in future Cup Series races at the track.

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was “up for whatever” in hopes of improving the racing at a track that seen drastic declines in attendance in the last decade.

“That race is really suffering as far as the show and how entertaining I think it is to watch,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really know what the answer is to make it more exciting, but I think this is a great opportunity to find out if this is the direction to go.  I am all for it. And I like the idea of trying it in the Xfinity Series or the (Camping World) Truck Series or what have you whatever track it is at to try it in that feeder series.  That is an opportunity to see if we can get it right without ruining anything for the Cup guys.”

NASCAR has been visiting IMS since 1994 and will return for the 24th Brickyard 400 weekend this summer. But the competition level in the race has paled in comparison to what’s usually seen two months earlier in IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

“I think NASCAR watches the Indy 500 and they see those guys drafting and passing and they are competitive,” Earnhardt said. “They have to try to put on that type of show if not better at that race track.  It is not good in conversation to have the IndyCar race be more exciting to watch than the NASCAR race there.  That is just business.  I think it’s great for them to be aggressive.”

Earnhardt referenced the big swing NASCAR took in the Brickyard 400 two years ago when Cup cars had an aero package that included nine-inch spoilers, an attempt at creating pack racing. The result was disappointing and widely panned.

NASCAR held a three-car test at IMS last October to try out eight different configurations with restrictor plates that included various splitter heights and gear ratios. The setup that will be used will also include NASCAR’s first ever use of “aero ducts.”

Xfinity teams will also use the 2016 specs for splitters and spoilers.

When it comes to the restrictor plates, 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman said his view of restrictor plates is they are used where there is a need for “a balance there on speed and safety.

“I don’t know what their sim results are or what their testing has been to validate what needs to be done, but I believe it’s all based off of safety,” Newman said of the decision to use restrictor plates. “Indianapolis is unique in the fact that the corners really are kind of 90 degrees. You never really hit at 90 degrees, but you’re hitting more so at a sharper angle than you are at a place like Fontana or Michigan or even at 1.5-mile race tracks. … But given the driver’s throttle response and acceleration and the ability to pass people is equally important. And we’ve seen some racing that gets pretty spread out at Indianapolis. I don’t know if a restrictor plate would make that the same or worse; or even better for that matter. To me, I think the restrictor plate, or at least the term restrictor plate, is usually more about safety and top speeds than it is anything else.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.