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: Chase Elliott ‘biggest surprise’ of Cup playoffs

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Only two drivers are safely in the third round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski secured spots through their wins at Charlotte and Talladega.

That leaves six spots to be decided Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty broke down the drivers competing for spots. Both of them agreed that Chase Elliott, who has finished in second in three of the five playoff races, has a great chance to make it all the way to the championship race in Miami.

“If Talladega had played out, he was either going to be in victory lane or in the top two or three,” Petty said. “When you look at that, he has had the most solid playoffs of any driver out there. We keep talking about the big three: Larson, Busch and Truex. This guy is a sleeper. But he’s my No. 4.”

Said Kligerman: “He’s been the biggest surprise. That 24 team has been incredible through the playoffs. One thing I’ve noticed about that team, just speaking to (crew chief) Alan Gustafson, speaking to Chase, it’s almost as if they want that first win more than they care about the playoffs.”

Watch the above video for more on the playoff drivers.

Friday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Kansas Speedway

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Things get started today for the pivotal weekend at Kansas Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have its elimination race in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, where four of the 12 remaining playoff drivers will not advance to the Round of 8.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8 with Saturday’s Kansas 300.

But it all begins today, as Cup has its first practice (the other two are Saturday) and qualifying, while the Xfinity Series will have its two practice sessions.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

12 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

1 – 2:25 p.m. — First Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

2:30 – 3:25 p.m. First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

5 – 5:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, 3 rounds) (NBCSN, MRN)

NASCAR: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

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.