Long: Tony Stewart set to go on road to nowhere after Homestead

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There will be a hint of sadness when Tony Stewart exits his Sprint Cup car for the final time Sunday night, but those feelings will belong to his fans not Stewart.

He’ll feel relief.

Beaten by bureaucracy and suffocated by success, Stewart is ready to leave NASCAR and all its rules behind. No longer will he be the voice of the garage, a position inherited from Dale Earnhardt and bequeathed to Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and others willing to challenge the sport’s leadership.

Now Stewart can have fun.

When he looks ahead to the dirt track racing he’ll do in 2017, his eyes brighten in a way they rarely have the last few years. NASCAR was his job — a well-paying job with career winnings of more than $122 million entering this season — but it was a job.

He often wanted to be driving to a dirt track in the middle of nowhere, plopping out of the truck in shorts and a T-shirt, climbing into a sprint car that sent him sliding through the corners and finishing the night with a beer in hand, more in the cooler and BSing with the same competitors he’d covered in a rooster tail of dirt.

Then he would head to the next track to do it again.

Thing is, Stewart was too good for that nomadic lifestyle where the highlight is finding a good diner at 3 a.m.

23 Mar 1997: Tony Stewart and John Menard enjoying the Dura-Lube 200 Indy Racing League at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona.
Tony Stewart in March 1997 during a break in an Indy Racing League event at Phoenix (Getty Images).

He was talented enough that he didn’t need to approach car owners with money for rides. The best teams wanted him. Many observers called Stewart a wheelman, one of the highest compliments a racer can receive. 

They wanted him in IndyCar and NASCAR. He found his way to NASCAR after a recruitment that a high school football star could appreciate.

Baby-faced and thin, Stewart tried to rein his temper in NASCAR but couldn’t. It grew as his success and appetite for pizzas and Coke did. He became the sport’s rabble-rouser and its conscience. There’s always at least one. Before him it was Earnhardt.

That’s not to say Stewart was Earnhardt. It’s just that Stewart was the closest thing to the seven-time champion in attitude. Stewart was the one most likely to speak up when he didn’t feel NASCAR gave drivers the proper respect.

Five years after Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500, Stewart voiced his anger at NASCAR in a sharp rebuke. Incensed at the bump drafting in a preliminary race at Daytona, Stewart said that “we’re probably going to kill somebody’’ with that type of racing and added “it could be me. It could be Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. It could be anybody out there.’’

The comments were dramatic even when one didn’t consider the backdrop, but drivers supported Stewart. Less than 48 hours later, NASCAR said it would further police bump drafting.

Even now, Stewart can tug at NASCAR, questioning its methods and incurring change.

DALLAS - AUGUST 17: NASCAR chairman Brian France and Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet during the 2011 Schedule Announcement Party at House of Blues on August 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
NASCAR Chairman Brian France and Tony Stewart in 2010 at a Texas Motor Speedway appearance. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for TMS)

Before the season, Stewart chastised NASCAR Chairman Brian France for not having attended a Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting. France went to one a few months later.

Stewart challenged NASCAR in April on safety when it allowed teams to tighten fewer than five lug nuts per wheel, leading to a spat of loose wheels. NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 the next day and changed the rule five days later.

Stewart can be most effective or annoying at such moments, but he admitted in September that he’s tired of fighting NASCAR.

“I can sit here,’’ Stewart said, grabbing his phone in a conference room with reporters in the NASCAR Plaza, “and I can pull up stuff on this phone that would make you cringe about the sport that drivers talk about.

“There’s 39 of these guys that 99 out of 100 times won’t say a thing about it to you guys or to NASCAR or anybody else. I’m the one guy that most of the time will go, ‘Man this is a bad thing to talk about, I shouldn’t talk about it,’ but I’ll get pissed off enough about it to talk about it because I believe it’s worth talking about.

“That’s part of the reason I’m retiring because I’m tired of being responsible for it. It’s somebody else’s responsibility now. I’ve had my fill of it. I’ve had my fill of fighting the fight. At some point, you say, ‘Why do I keep fighting this fight when I’m not getting anywhere?’ ’’

Don’t be confused. That hard exterior hides a softer side. Stewart often is among the first to check in when someone in the sport is hurt or in need. It could be a Facebook message, text or a call. He’s offered his plane countless times to families of injured drivers so they can get to the hospital as soon as possible. After Bryan Clauson, an open-wheel driver, died in a crash this year, Stewart paid more than $30,000 at a charity auction for one of Clauson’s helmets and then gave the helmet to Clauson’s fiancee.

“I think that in front of everybody he’s plays his hard shell tough guy and wants everybody to sort of be weary … of him, but behind closed doors he is a bit more of a teddy bear than I think people know,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

DOVER, DE - JUNE 01: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet, talks to Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2012 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart talks to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2012 . (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. share a bond, a reverence for racing. Earnhardt embraces NASCAR’s past, and Stewart respects the hard-scrabble life drivers had before him. Earnhardt has his collection of racing artifacts from cars to magazines; Stewart’s prized possessions include more than 200 racing helmets.

Earnhardt and Stewart share more than a respect of racing’s history.

They share Feb. 18, 2001.

Stewart’s car tumbled down the backstretch that day in the Daytona 500, sending him to nearby Halifax Medical Center. He suffered a concussion and bruises.

After X-rays and a CT scan, Stewart was wheeled into a room where doctors tried revive another patient.

It was Dale Earnhardt.

Stewart was quickly moved to another room. He found out the fate of one of the sport’s biggest stars before NASCAR’s Mike Helton told fans “we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.’’

On a day that Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his father, Stewart lost a hero.

Stewart has experienced loss often. Less than a year earlier, the death of a rival shook Stewart. He had raced Kenny Irwin throughout dirt tracks in the Midwest. They became rivals. At times heated. That carried over to when they both raced in the Sprint Cup level. Stewart memorably threw his heel guards and leaned into Irwin’s car as it slowly drove by after Irwin punted Stewart into the wall at Martinsville.

Irwin died in a crash July 7, 2000, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart won the Cup race two days later. He gave Irwin’s parents the trophy. Years later, Irwin’s mother cried, when she recounted Stewart’s generosity.

Another driver’s death affected Stewart in a different way. Competing in a sprint car event the night before the 2014 Watkins Glen race, Stewart ran side-by-side with Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old New York racer. Ward’s car bounced off the guardrail and spun. He climbed from his car and walked down the track to gesture at Stewart when Stewart’s car struck him. Ward was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.

HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 29: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, speaks to the media prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 29, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. Stewart hit and killed sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race August 9, after Ward Jr. had exited his car. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Tony Stewart speaks to the media at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 29, 2014, in his return to racing after his involvement in a fatal sprint car crash. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Stewart says it was an accident.

After hearing from about two dozen witnesses, a grand jury needed less than an hour to decide not to charge Stewart for Ward’s death. Nearly a year after the accident, Ward’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Stewart. The case has yet to go to trial.

Stewart sat out three Cup events after Ward’s death before returning to the driver’s seat.

“It’s not something that goes away,’’ Stewart said six weeks after the incident. “It will never go away. It’s always going to be part of my life the rest of my life.’’

That Stewart returned to racing is no surprise. Racing has been all he has known. He was 2 months old when his parents put his baby carrier in the seat of a go-kart. At age 2, he placed a tupperware bowl on his head for a helmet and scooted throughout the house on his plastic motorcycle. By age 5, he was circling the garage in his Big Wheel.

Racing was with Stewart even as he slept.

“I dreamed about winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Knoxville Nationals,’’ he once said. “You name it, I wanted to win every big race in every big division.’’

His NASCAR career will end without a Daytona 500 win. He never won an Indianapolis 500, either, but he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway twice. He’s never won the Knoxville Nationals as a driver but has won it 10 times as an owner since 2001.

What he has won is 49 Cup races — including one this year at Sonoma Raceway — and three championships.

No period marked Stewart’s greatness like the 2011 Chase. He entered winless and grumpy, saying a few days before the playoffs began he didn’t think he had a chance to win it. Then he won five of the 10 Chase races, dueling Carl Edwards on and off the track.

After his Martinsville win, Stewart said in victory lane: “(Edwards) better be worried. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.’’

Stewart said more the following week when he won at Texas. Edwards finished second. After his press conference, Edwards doodled a goatee on Stewart’s face on a poster. Stewart saw it and was told Edwards was responsible. Stewart responded by writing a message to Edwards on the poster: “Told you so.’’

Stewart’s pestering continued in a press conference three days before the season finale. Edwards tried to match Stewart but couldn’t. When things are going well, few can banter as well as Stewart.

He can be just as entertaining on the radio. One of his favorite phrases to say on the team’s radio was “Here kitty, kitty, kitty” as he closed on the leader. When he had to pit early in that 2011 Homestead finale after running over debris and falling to 40th, he calmly told his crew: “They’re going to feel like (crap) when we kick their ass after this.’’

Such boasts have not been heard on the radio in recent years, as Stewart’s triumphs declined.

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet, walks on stage during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Tony Stewart walks on stage during driver introductions at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 13, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

A frustrating 2013 ended that August when he suffered a broken leg in a sprint car crash, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The following year saw more struggles before his incident with Ward.

Last season, Stewart scored a career-low three top-10 finishes. He missed the first eight races of this year because of a back injury suffered in a sand dunes injury in January. Even with this year’s win at Sonoma, he enters his final Sprint Cup Series race with nearly as many finishes of 30th or worse (seven) as top-10 results (eight).

Stewart will not leave as the same driver who won Sprint Cup Series titles in 2002, ’05 and ’11 but few ever leave as they enter.

When he arrived, he was swarmed by fans and media as the sport’s hot rookie who drove for car owner Joe Gibbs. Stewart later said there’s no manual on how to adjust to the sport’s demands and admitted he failed to handle those at times. Some fans who liked his brash style, soon tired of his antics and cheers turned to boos.

While there remain those who will never root for Stewart, the cheers have grown louder these final weeks in the series. His teammate, Kevin Harvick, recently decried that Stewart wasn’t receiving the accolades he deserved in his final appearances at tracks.

Stewart, though, did not want the tributes Gordon received last year and Dale Earnhardt surely would have had. Stewart has rebuffed many attempts to honor him.

Stewart didn’t want pity. He wanted cheers when he deserved them, as he did at Sonoma.

Most of all, Stewart just wanted to race. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

Hooters joins Chase Elliott sponsorship program for 2017-18

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Chase Elliott has added a new high-profile sponsor for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday that the Hooters restaurant chain will serve as primary sponsor for two races in each of those seasons, as well as serve as a associate sponsor for all of the other races in both seasons on Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet SS in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Elliott’s two races with Hooters primary sponsorship this season will be May 7 at Talladega and Nov. 12 at Phoenix.

Hooters has had a long sponsorship history in NASCAR, with its colors gracing cars for over 150 Cup-level races over the years. Most prominent was the 1992 season when it served as primary sponsor on Alan Kulwicki’s championship-winning Ford.

Ironically, Kulwicki beat Elliott’s father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, by 10 points to win that season’s championship.

“Twenty-five years after being part of one of the most memorable seasons in NASCAR history, Hooters is excited to support another amazing talent in Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team,” Hooters chief marketing officer Carl Sweat sweat said in a media release.

Elliott earned Cup Series rookie of the year honors in 2016, with 10 top-five finishes, 17 top-10s and two pole positions.

“Hooters has a historic place in this sport, and I’m glad they’re back,” Chase Elliott said. “Our entire team is looking forward to making the program a success.”

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Lady Antebellum to highlight Daytona 500 pre-race show

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Seven-time Grammy Award winners Lady Antebellum will highlight the Feb. 26 pre-race show for this year’s Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway officials announced Monday.

The multi-platinum CD-selling country trio will take the stage not only prior to the 2017 season-opening and 59th edition of the Great American Race, but also the first race under Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entitlement sponsorship.

Lady Antebellum – made up of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood – will be on hand to promote its sixth album, Heart Break, which is due for release on June 9, with the first single being “You Look Good,” which will be the cornerstone to kick off a six-country “You Look Good World Tour.”

Lady Antebellum is no stranger to DIS: they performed a pre-race concert prior to the 2008 Coke Zero 400 and also played at last year’s inaugural Country 500 Music Festival.

“’The Great American Race’ will have one of today’s great American country music acts front-and-center for our fans to enjoy,” DIS President Chip Wile said in a statement. “Lady Antebellum continues a long-standing DIS tradition of attracting major stars from the world of entertainment to the ’World Center of Racing’ and the Daytona 500.”

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Brad Keselowski Racing announces crew chief assignments

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Brad Keselowski Racing has announced the crew chiefs that will be paired with both of its full-time rookie drivers this season in the Camping World Truck Series.

Austin Cindric, driving the No. 19 Draw-Tite Ford, will work with Doug Randolph. Randolph has been a crew chief for BKR since 2012 and has six wins, including three with Tyler Reddick in the last two seasons. Randolph also has four Xfinity Series wins.

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Chase Briscoe in the No. 29 Cooper Standard Ford. Hillman is a two-time Truck series champion as crew chief for Todd Bodine (2006, 2010). He has 20 Truck Series wins, the last coming in 2013 with Jeb Burton.

“Austin Cindric has already had success in various forms of racing, and has shown a lot of potential in our Ford F-150 race trucks,” said Keselowski in a press release. “I certainly believe that Chase is ready to take the next step in his career, and we’re excited to have him join the BKR family. He won the ARCA championship in his first full-time season, and he’s proven to have the ability to learn quickly and win races. We’re pleased to give both Austin and Chase the opportunity to compete full-time at a high level in NASCAR.”

Briscoe, 22, enters his rookie season after winning the ARCA Racing Series title behind six race wins.

“It’s an absolutely huge opportunity and such an honor to drive for Brad,” said Briscoe in a press release. “The competition level in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is so high, but I’m going to be in the best equipment out there. It’s really cool to once again be working with the Keselowski family. When I moved to North Carolina three years ago, I was helping Brian and Bob in their shop, so things have come full circle. I’m truly blessed with this opportunity, and I hope to make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning races and championships, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Cindric, 18, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He has six starts with BKR over the last two seasons. His best result is 15th last November at Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is a massive opportunity from Brad and everyone at BKR who trusts me and believes in my abilities as a driver to move on to the next level for a full season,” said Cindric in a press release. “2017 gets more and more exciting for me with every day that goes by. I’ve only done a handful of one-off races in my brief stock car career, so I’m really looking forward to having the same guys by my side week in and week out. I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop the last few weeks and I know everyone is really excited to get back racing.”

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt, Kyle Busch come up short in Nations Cup finale at Race of Champions

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch hugs brother Kurt Busch during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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After early exits in the first day of the Race of Champion exhibition Saturday in Miami, Kyle and Kurt Busch returned on Sunday in hopes of winning the Nations Cup for the United States of America, but were swept in the finale by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.

The brothers, representing Team USA NASCAR, were in Group A with USA IndyCar, USA Rally and ROC Factor Canada.

Kurt Busch’s struggles from Saturday continued in his first race against IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second. The NASCAR representative would bounce back in his next race, beating action sports star and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana.

In Kyle Busch‘s first race of the day, he faced and beat karting champion Stefan Rzadzinski of Canada. He followed it up by beating Scott Speed.

After six races, Team USA NASCAR and IndyCar had four wins each and faced each other in the semifinal round. But the Busch brothers prevailed over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi from USA IndyCar to advance to the Nations Cup final against Vettel, who represented Germany by himself.

But Vettel swept the race, betting Kurt then Kyle Busch to claim the Nations Cup. Vettel swept all of his races, finishing Sunday with seven wins.

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