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.

NASCAR America live 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Suarez from NASCAR Hall; new homes for Blaney, Menard

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET from the NASCAR Hall of Fame with special guest Daniel Suarez.

Marty Snider hosts, and he’ll be joined by analysts Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett.

On today’s show:

· Daniel Suarez will join us live and will talk about his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series, his racing development over the years starting in his native Monterrey, Mexico, coming to the U.S. to race, winning the Xfinity Series championship last season and his hopes for both the remainder of this season as well as the future.

· As we do each Wednesday, we’ll ask Daniel questions straight from you – the fans! Tweet your questions for Daniel to @NASCARonNBC, using the hashtag #AskDaniel.

· It’s also been a busy news day in the NASCAR world. It was announced earlier today that Ryan Blaney will move from Wood Brothers Racing to a third Team Penske NASCAR Cup ride in 2018. Also, Paul Menard will move from Richard Childress Racing to replace Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing. We’ll hear Blaney’s thoughts on the big news, and discuss the state of NASCAR’s ongoing youth movement.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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Xfinity crew chief Chris Gabehart penalized $5,000 for loose lug nut at Indy

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NASCAR has issued one penalty resulting from last weekend’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing, was fined $5,000 on Wednesday.

Gabehart was penalized for violating Sections 10.4 and 10.9 of the NASCAR Rule Book covering Tires and Wheels: Lug nut(s) not properly installed at the conclusion of the Lilly Diabetes 250.

There were no other penalties related to last weekend’s Xfinity or NASCAR Cup races in Indianapolis or the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.

Richard Childress Racing to announce plans for a third Cup team ‘at a later date’

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With Paul Menard and his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship on the move to Wood Brothers Racing for 2018, Richard Childress Racing has a major funding gap to address.

Menards has adorned the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR for seven consecutive Cup seasons and is among the last full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series. It assuredly is the most lucrative of RCR’s sponsorships.

Though the team is committed to fielding Chevys for Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon next season, the impending departure of Menard leaves questions about whether RCR will remain a three-car team in 2018.

In a statement Wednesday morning, team chairman and CEO Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

Here’s the full statement from Childress:

Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.

Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.

We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.