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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.

Jimmie Johnson to start in the rear after gear change

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson‘s bid for a record-tying fifth Brickyard 400 will have to begin at the back of the 40-car field.

Johnson qualified fourth Saturday but stated on Twitter that he’ll have to go to the rear of the field because they had to change the rear gear.

Although track position is pivotal at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because passing is difficult, optimists can view Johnson’s woes as a good sign. He has scored two of his three wins this season – Texas and Dover – after starting in the rear.

Also starting at the rear today is Cole Whitt (rear gear change) and Joey Gase (engine change). Whitt qualified 34th. Gase qualified 38th.

Today’s race is on NBC. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET with Countdown to Green.

 

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Today’s Cup race at Indianapolis: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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The NASCAR Cup Series takes part in the 24th annual Brickyard 400 today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It marks one year since Kyle Busch earned his last Cup win, when he claimed his second Brickyard 400 in a row. Busch starts from the pole for the second year in a row.

Here’s all the important info you need ahead of the race, which airs on NBC.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 2:32 p.m. Green flag is set for 2:44 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 20

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 9 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting is at 12:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 1:55 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Carly Pearce will perform the Anthem at 2:26 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBC will broadcast the race. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. with Countdown to Green. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast on radio and the Performance Racing Network at 1:30 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the IMSRN/PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 89 degrees at race time with a 15 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Busch started from the pole and led 149 of the race’s 170 total laps. It was his second win in a row in the race. Matt Kenseth finished second, Jimmie Johnson finished third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the full starting lineup.

Get a humorous look at life in the pits in, what else, ‘The Pits’ on NBC livestream

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Life in the pits can sometimes, well … really be the pits.

But it can also be a hilarious look at life in NASCAR, as well.

That’s the premise behind “The Pits,” a three-part “mockumentary-style series” that spoofs the life of the fictitious SONIC pit crew in NASCAR.

“The Pits” debuts Sunday on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. After each 2-3 minute episode airs, replays will be available on NBCSports.com and also the NASCAR on NBC Facebook page.

The first episode airs during this Sunday’s live stream of the Brickyard 400, which will be televised on NBC.

Episode 1 follows pit pro Rita, who falls for tire specialist Max, but Max’s only affection is for SONIC Pretzel Dogs.

The other two episodes of The Pits will livestream Saturday night, August 19, during the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and during the Sunday, October 15 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“The Pits” is produced for NBC Sports Group and SONIC Drive-In by The Kicker, with shareable content running across NBC Sports Digital assets.

Starting lineup for 24th annual Brickyard 400

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Kyle Busch will lead the Brickyard 400 to the green flag Sunday for the second year in a row.

He earned his fourth pole of the year and is seeking his first Cup win since the 2016 Brickyard 400.

Following Busch in the starting lineup is Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin is the only driver in the top five who hasn’t won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Click here for the full starting lineup.