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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.

Legendary announcer Ken Squier gets you ready for Sunday’s big day of racing (video)

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Sunday is the biggest day of the year in motorsports, starting in the morning with Formula One’s legendary Monaco Grand Prix.

Then, at Noon ET, it’s the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The final part of the tripleheader of racing is NASCAR’s longest race of the season, the 400 lap, 600 mile Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Newly-named NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018 inductee Ken Squier gives you a great primer for what promises to be a memorable day around the world (see video above).

Roller coasters, bicycling & softball: How drivers spent their day off

Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
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With no track activity, NASCAR Cup drivers had a free day on Friday and some were able to get out and about.

Jimmie Johnson helped organize a 69-mile bike ride Friday morning for 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden, who died May 22 at age 35 from injures suffered when he was hit by a car while cycling in Italy. The 69 miles ridden were for the number Hayden raced with in his career. Among drivers who joined him were Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez.

 

Others did other activities on their day off.

Ryan Blaney went to Carowinds amusement park just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, and took to periscope as he rode in the front row on the Fury 325 roller coaster, which reaches a peak height of 325 feet and then goes into an 81-degree drop.

The ride reaches speeds up to 95 mph. The coaster is North America’s longest steel coaster at 1.25 miles. The average ride time is 3 minutes, 25 seconds, and the ride crosses both the North Carolina and South Carolina border.

Brad Keselowski spent part of his team playing in the Team Penske softball game and provided proof of his hitting ability.

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Stewart-Haas Racing, Nature’s Bakery reach settlement that includes sponsorship

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Stewart-Haas Racing announced Friday that it has reached an agreement with Nature’s Bakery that will include the company serving as a sponsor for four Cup races split between Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick.

Those four races will be announced at a later date.

As part of the agreement, all lawsuits between Stewart-Haas Racing and Nature’s Bakery have been dropped.

Stewart-Haas Racing filed a $31 million breach of contract lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery on Feb. 3. Nature’s Bakery had two years remaining on a three-year contract to sponsor Danica Patrick’s team when the company sent the team a notice of termination on Jan. 19 . Nature’s Bakery was to have paid $15,212,000 each season to sponsor the team.

Nature’s Bakery filed a counterclaim Feb. 25 stating it did not see the return it was led to believe in sponsoring Patrick’s team.

“It’s gratifying to see a difficult situation get resolved in a professional manner that suits all parties,” said Brett Frood, president, Stewart-Haas Racing. “Together, we worked diligently to find an equitable solution to our collective challenges.”

“I am a longtime motorsports fan and, particularly, a fan of NASCAR,” said Dave Marson, founder of Nature’s Bakery. “Our partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing began with direct, open conversations and that foundation allowed us to reach this agreement.”

Other parts of the agreement were not revealed.

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Earnhardt Family Playground provides special place at Rescue Ranch

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STATESVILLE, N.C. — Where there had been silence, except for the whistling wind, there was laughter, giggles and shouts of glee Friday morning.

With the help of the Earnhardt family and others, Rescue Ranch debuted a state-of-the-art playground to go along with its mission of promoting hands-on learning and caring for animals.

Rescue Ranch, founded by Ryan Newman and wife Krissie, is located about 35 minutes north of Charlotte and provides classroom education on animal care and contact with a variety of animals on the 87-acre facility.

Krissie Newman said they were looking to add a playground to make school field trips there more of a full-day experience. As they looked into such playgrounds, she met Kendra Wood, an autism teacher at Lake Norman High School, and talked to occupational therapists who provided tips on how to make a playground inclusive for all children.

“We always look for field trips to get out in the community in any sort and this is a great place,’’ Wood said. “Now that they added the playground to it, we can do an outdoor component as well.’’

That’s important because many playgrounds are not as accessible for all children.

“Playgrounds usually aren’t fun for us,’’ Wood said. “We can’t do anything. We can do pretty much everything (here). It’s such a different thing for us, but a great thing, something that I wish other communities would come and look at and try to emulate.’’

The $550,000 playground, which is 10,000 square feet, is named the Earnhardt Family Playground.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy look at the sign dedicating the Earnhardt Family Playground. Kelley Earnhardt Miller and husband L.W. Miller also look on. Photo: Dustin Long

A sign says: “To honor our commitment to children and passion for nature, the Earnhardt Family dedicates this playground to Rescue Ranch to support the needs of our community and further its mission for the benefit of those who come and play here. Generations of our family have supported youth, nature and conservation, and the combination of all three. The Earnhardt Family is proud to support this inclusive playground and the hope and joy it will provide for generations to come.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said the family was invited by the Newmans to visit and learn about the ranch. That led to the family supporting the playground. Others who contributed to the playground included Danica Patrick, Denny Hamlin Foundation, Evernham Family Racing for a Reason, Kevin Harvick Foundation, Brennan Poole, Marcus and Cassi Smith, Martin Truex Jr. Foundation and the NASCAR Foundation. 

“It was a real good opportunity for us to get involved in our community,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “We look for opportunities to get involved in the community and make a difference in the community and this is a really, really incredible place.’’

There’s more Krissie Newman wants to do from building a pavilion at the playground, an adoption center, a memorial garden and a 24-hour emergency vet clinic.

Students from Lake Norman High School’s autism class enjoy the swings at the Earnhardt Family Playground at Rescue Ranch. Photo by Dustin Long

“I’ve got big plans for this place,’’ she said. “I’m just starting.

“We want to teach kids and have them have fun while they’re here, have a good experience and hopefully take a little bit of Rescue Ranch away and make it part of their story. A lot of people remember where they went on field trips as a kid. I want Rescue Ranch to be one of those places in the future where they learned how to take care of animals better, respect the environment and just have a different level of compassion and empathy for living things in general.’’

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