Ryan: The scene around Tony Stewart’s last ride was vintage ‘Smoke’

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The receiving line to acknowledge the greatness of Tony Stewart began before the green flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four hours later, it still hadn’t stopped.

After the three-time series champion and surefire NASCAR Hall of Famer climbed from his car after the finale to a Sprint Cup season and an illustrious career, a steady parade of well-wishing drivers, car owners and team members still were paying homage.

There was Joe Gibbs, who told Stewart, “Thanks, man. You helped build our deal.”

Chad Johnston, once the crew chief for Stewart and now with Kyle Larson, shared a few minutes of Indiana pride about dirt-track racing with his former driver.

Former teammate Kyle Busch stopped by to say, “It’s been awesome, man. Really appreciate all you have done for us,” and asked Stewart to save a drink for him at an upcoming Christmas party.

Jeff Gordon drew the biggest reaction.

“We going to the sand rails tonight?” Stewart said with a hearty laugh, referencing the January vacation to the dunes of Death Valley that sidelined him for the first eight races of the season with a fractured back.

“I wish,” Gordon replied. “Can we leave tomorrow morning?”

“If I break my back now, I’m not too worried about it.”

“We’re not going to do that. We’re going to have fun.”

“Damn right, we are.”

Fun was the operative word Sunday for Stewart despite a 22nd-place finish

The race ended with echoes of Dale Earnhardt at 1.5-mile tracks, where Jimmie Johnson became the third seven-time champion in NASCAR history.

But it began with another evocation of “The Intimidator,” and the significance of that symmetry was fully appreciated by the three-time champion whom many have called the modern-day version of Earnhardt.

When Stewart rolled off for the final time before a NASCAR race, a member of virtually every team had gathered along the pit lane to greet the No. 14 Chevrolet in what “Smoke” called “the best part of the day.

“It shows you what people think about you,” Stewart said. “I’ve always joked around in the garage area with crew guys, owners, crew chiefs, officials. And to see that many guys who wanted to be out there, that’s a lot.

“I think everybody knows I fight for a lot of things that a lot of people don’t want to fight for, and don’t want to speak up for, but I’m the guy who’s too dumb to not keep my mouth shut. I’ll speak up for it. I guess it shows respect.  It brought back a lot of memories when they did that with Dale Sr. when he won the Daytona 500. Truly humbling and honored.”

The farewell tour that wasn’t – Stewart demanded that NASCAR and tracks downplay his exit from NASCAR over the course of his final season – finally was sprinkled with some degree of pomp, circumstance and sentimentality Sunday. Before the race, Stewart was feted at the driver’s meeting with a standing ovation and video tribute that celebrated his fiery outbursts as much as his countless triumphs.

Despite a nondescript result, he exited his car to cheers of “Thank you, Tony! Thanks, Smoke!” from a crowd of a few dozen fans – some dressed in Chili Bowl apparel, others wearing T-shirts from Stewart’s time in IndyCar and USAC. They waved their smart phones and took selfies from the opposite side of the car from the throngs interviewing Stewart.

Perhaps some had been listening on his team’s channel when he provided last glimpse at the cantankerous force of will that made him an all-time great.

After a strategy gamble of running 60 laps on tires that wear in half that distance on the abrasive surface, the frustration multiplied in a steady stream of invective aimed at NASCAR after a late red flag. Stewart spent many of the waning laps hissing at NASCAR – “still screaming just like I would on any other race, so I was true to form all the way to the end.

“We got screwed out of about four spots on the restart when the lineup was screwed up, guys passed us on the yellow lining up, which wasn’t right.” Stewart said. “At least it’s all about consistency. (NASCAR officials) haven’t been able to get that right, and they still aren’t getting it right, so …  ahh, what the hell. It’s over.”

Of course, it isn’t over after Stewart takes his final ride (“the car doesn’t have a scratch on it”) back to his homestead in Columbus, Indiana, for safekeeping with the rest of his racing memorabilia.

His first offseason without any concern about NASCAR driving since 1999 will begin with an annual trip to Georgia for racing four-wheelers off road with friends. He hasn’t planned any races beyond that – there will be no more in 2016 – but he “isn’t going to wait long,” nor will he be restrictive about what he runs.

Dirt races are a definite. What else? Well, Ford, the new manufacturer for Stewart-Haas Racing team, has spots in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Stewart is interested in sports cars, so …

Where will you be racing, Smoke?

“Everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got to look and see what order I can do it in. Eventually, we’re going to do it all. But I’ve still got a couple of weeks of work to do as a car owner.”

Ahh, yes. Stewart has provided constant reminders throughout the season that he will remain intimately involved with NASCAR as a car owner. He expects to attend at least a dozen races next year, and you can expect he will be as outspoken as he was during his last tour (when a tirade about lug nut policies led to a new rule).

As NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton jokingly reminded during the drivers meeting, Stewart still can be summoned to the series’ hauler for reprimand when his brasher side flares – and that’s certain to happen.

“You’ve got to read between the lines,” Stewart proclaimed when asked how he viewed the incessant tributes from his peers. “A lot of these guys are sitting there so excited because they know they never have to race me again.

“It’s an honor. I’m the guy who will fight with them if I disagree with them, but at the same time, they know I’m guy that will fight for them, too.”

Stewart took one last question before ambling to the stage to congratulate Johnson on tying Earnhardt.

Would he keep fighting for his driving brethren?

“If they want me to,” he smiled.

NASCAR America: How to navigate Martinsville to win grandfather clock

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The grandfather clock awarded to winners at Martinsville has become one of the most sought after prizes in NASCAR.

So what does a driver need to do to ensure a trip to victory lane?

Our NASCAR America experts discussed that in Wednesday’s show.

  

 

Burton: ‘Fans were cheated’ when Jimmie Johnson chose not to qualify at Fontana

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No rules were broken. No penalties handed out.

That’s what happened when Jimmie Johnson didn’t attempt a qualifying lap last Friday at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 two days later.

Johnson wrecked his car in the first Cup practice earlier Friday while making a mock qualifying run. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the backup No. 48 out of the team’s trailer, choosing to forego Friday qualifying to work out the kinks for Saturday’s two final NASCAR Cup practices.

“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said Friday. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that hasn’t turned a lap in yet.”

It’s worth noting that because it was a West Coast race, if Johnson had wrecked another car, he likely would have been forced to use a teammate’s backup car (for some East Coast races, Hendrick likely would have shipped another No. 48 from its shop).

By electing to bypass qualifying, Johnson started 37th in the 39-car field Sunday and finished 21st.

On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton disagreed with Knaus’ call and said that, in effect, Johnson fans were shortchanged.

“First and foremost, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus did nothing wrong,” Burton said. “They didn’t break any rules. They followed all the rules. NASCAR considered that they were attempting to qualify because they tried to practice, (and) they wrecked their car. No rules were broken.

“I just think in the greater interest of the sport, if I’m a race fan, particularly a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I turn the TV on, I want my guy out there trying to qualify.

“I think in the better good of the sport, it’s best that people deliver, put their car on the grid and put their driver out to qualify. I understand what Chad Knaus is saying. We’ve seen it a lot of times where a backup car comes out, and they go win the race.

“The backup cars today are different than they were 30 years ago. These backup cars today are put in that trailer that can go win the race.

“I just think that for the well-being of the sport, the fans deserve to see their guy that they tuned in on TV, at person at the track or turn the radio on, to listen to their guy, watch their guy go qualify the best he can. The fans were cheated, in my opinion, in not having that car on the racetrack.”

Two other analysts chimed in on Burton’s contention.

Said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett: “If the drivers, the teams, the crew chiefs knew that if they did not make a qualifying attempt, did not get out and make a lap, that they were sitting on pit road when the green flag fell, then I think that would make things a lot different in that inspection process and in the process of the thinking the way Chad and Jimmie went about it.”

Added former driver Greg Biffle, “Listen, they already crashed making a qualifying run (in practice). So, Chad has his last car in the trailer, and to put it together and put Jimmie on the racetrack with no laps and take a chance at having something go wrong with that car. These cars are real good now, that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Said Jarrett: “The chance is always there, so that makes it difficult.”

Burton reiterated that Johnson and Knaus did nothing wrong but added a caveat:

“I just think in the big picture and best interest of the sport, it’s something that has to be looked at,” he said. “As we’ve all seen, when one person does something, it tends to start a trend – and this is not a trend we want to see continue on into the future.

“I agree with D.J., making some rules. Because if you penalize teams and drivers for not getting through inspection in time and those kinds of things in a greater way, all of a sudden teams and drivers get through inspection on time to present their cars to qualify.”

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Team Penske to appeal Phoenix penalty against Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe

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Team Penske announced Wednesday evening that it will appeal the penalty to the No. 2 team of Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix on March 19.

NASCAR docked the team 35 driver and team owner points, while crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended for three races and was fined $65,000 for failing post-race inspection. Keselowski had finished fifth in the race.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in last Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

Wolfe sat out this past Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. The team’s appeal request will reinstate Wolfe until the appeal plays out, meaning he’ll be back on Keselowski’s pit box for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville.

Here is the statement from the team:

“After having the opportunity to review the facts, Team Penske has decided to appeal the penalties following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in Phoenix. We have requested an appeal hearing and we plan to follow the process as outlined in the NASCAR rulebook. The appeals administration has granted our request to defer the two races remaining on Paul Wolfe’s suspension until the results of our appeal are known.”

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Blaney, Wood Brothers head to Martinsville for homecoming, hope to leave with win

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It’ll be a big homecoming this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for Wood Brothers Racing.

The Wood Brothers began their legendary NASCAR racing career in Stuart, Virginia, about 30 miles from the Speedway.

Driver Ryan Blaney grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about 45 miles from Martinsville. And crew chief Jeremy Bullins grew up in Walnut Cove, N.C., about 40 miles from Martinsville.

That’s why Blaney, Bullins and the Wood Brothers are primed for what they hope will be a strong showing for the No. 21 Ford team in Sunday’s STP 500.

“This is kind of a home track for me,” Blaney said of the .528-mile paperclip-shaped oval. “I have a lot of friends and family that come back and watch this race.

“I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember. This is probably the race I came to most as a kid just because it was so close to our house where I grew up and my dad was racing, so I do consider it a home race as well just because I grew up down the road, so that’s pretty neat.”

Since it was formed in the early 1950s, Wood Brothers Racing has competed in 111 Cup races at Martinsville, earning two wins, 28 top-fives and 42 top-10s.

Not coincidentally, Martinsville Speedway will celebrate its 70th anniversary this weekend, having opened in 1947 and has been the oldest operating track in NASCAR.

And the Wood Brothers have been there for virtually every race since, either racing on-track or watching as spectators.

Glen and I were standing on the backstretch over here at the very first race ever run here 70 years ago, so I think it would be really cool for us — 70 years later — for us to be sitting right here Sunday evening after the race and put that Ford Fusion and Motorcraft Ford in front,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said.

That’s why this weekend has such great significance and importance to the No. 21 team. Blaney sits seventh in the Cup point standings, will make his 60th career start in NASCAR’s premier series and would love to earn his first career Cup win at a track that means so much both to him and the Wood Brothers.

“It would be really big,” Blaney said. “Historically, this hasn’t been my best race track, but it means a lot. For the Wood Brothers, it’s a home race for them and it’s my crew chief’s favorite race track, so that’s given a lot of extra incentive.

“I thought we’ve gotten a lot better here over the last couple of years. I know what we need and we’ll try to run up further toward the front, so it’s just all about putting 500 laps together, saving the car and just trying to stay out of trouble the whole race. It would mean a lot (to win), for sure, and it would be a really good feeling to try to make that happen.”

Blaney has two career Cup starts at Martinsville. Both came last season and both ended in 19th place finishes.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers – Eddie and Leonard – would love to earn their first win at Martinsville since NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson visited victory lane there 44 years ago in spring 1973.

“It’s a big race for us,” Eddie Wood said. “We live 25 miles from here. We’ve known Clay Campbell’s (Martinsville president) family all my life.

“We used to hang out with his grandfather (track founder H. Clay Earles). He was always out promoting the race and he would come to our shop in Stuart and we’d have lunch and play cards and do all kinds of things. It’s just great to be racing back here.

“Probably the most special thing for us is to be back racing here. This is home. It’s a hard race to do well in. Like Ryan said, you have to put together 500 laps and stay out of all the calamity that happens and not try to create any of your own, so I’m looking forward to it.

“Like he said, our crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, loves this place and so do we. Ryan’s got two races under his belt, plus Truck races, so I think he’s underestimating his track time here. I think he’ll be just fine.”

The 23-year-old Blaney has matured and improved as a driver since making his first Cup start in 2014. He’d love to add a win at Martinsville to his best Cup finish to date: runner-up in this year’s Daytona 500.

But to do that, Blaney knows he’ll have to maintain his composure at a place where it’s very difficult when you constantly bang fenders with nearly 40 other drivers for 500 laps.

“That’s one of the biggest things you fight here is staying calm and patient,” Blaney said. “All drivers at some point in the race will get frustrated and whether they act upon it or not is up to them.

“We try to stay as emotionless as possible. I think that’s the best thing to do and try and keep a cool head. Granted, that really hasn’t been the case before. I haven’t really gotten emotional here before. It takes you a while to calm back down, but you can never really calm back down when you get like that, hot in the head.”

As Eddie Wood says, what better way to come to Martinsville for a homecoming, and to leave with a victory celebration.

“It’s been a great experience coming over here, close to home and we always want to win here more than anywhere because it was your hometown,” Wood said. “We’re looking forward to coming over here and watching Ryan win this next race. I just think 70 years later would be a really good time to win.”

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