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.

Austin Dillon: Richard Childress Racing looking to be ‘leaner and meaner’ with two-car team

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – When the 2018 Cup season begins next month, Richard Childress Racing will show up with what Austin Dillon hopes is a “leaner and meaner” two-car operation.

Dillon confirmed RCR will only field two full-time cars this season Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour.

The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet will be joined by Ryan Newman in the No. 31.

Paul Menard, who drove the No. 27 for RCR from 2011-17, is now with Wood Brothers Racing driving the No. 21.

“That was something I was really excited about in the offseason, when we decided to go to a little bit smaller organization,” Dillon said. “I see a lot of two-car teams being successful. Furniture Row is going back to one car and they were a two-car team last year, won the championship. I’m really positive about that. … It’s nice to be able to focus on two cars and our crew chiefs are our best friends. … They want to put RCR where it needs to be and that’s winning championships.”

This will be the first time RCR has been a strictly two-car operation since 2000, when it fielded entires for Dale Earnhardt in the N0. 3 and Mike Skinner in the No. 31. The next season, they fielded a third part-time car in eight races. At its peak, RCR fielded four full-time cars.

It went from four to three full-time cars in 2012.

The team has also downscaled its Xfinity operation from five to three cars.

RCR was able to win two Cup races last season, with Dillon in the Coke 600 and Ryan Newman in the spring Phoenix race. They were the team’s first Cup wins since 2013. Dillon, entering his fifth full-time season in Cup, doesn’t see 2018 as a rebuilding year.

“I think (it’s) just a go forward year,” Dillon said. “We’re getting more resources than we’ve ever had for two teams for a full year. Three teams, you’re getting spread thin at times and now we have the people that we want around us and enough of them.”

When it comes to personnel, Dillon said the team has “grown stronger” in the area it most needed to – engineering.

“It is leaner and meaner, but as far as the depth and places you need them, it’s probably better, truthfully,” Dillon said.

One new addition for RCR is an old face for the team. Andy Petree, who won two championships with RCR as Earnhardt’s crew chief in 1993 and 1994, has rejoined the team as the vice president of competition.

Dr. Eric Warren, who was the director of competition beginning in 2012, will now report to Petree in his role as chief technology advisor.

“I’ve enjoyed Andy since he got to our organization,” Dillon said. “It’s a line between my grandfather and myself and Eric Warren and my grandfather. … Our sport’s moving in a direction that’s heading toward the future and Andy has a passion and always has had a passion for engineering, but also kind of plays to my grandfather’s cards where he’s got an old school part to him, too.

“He’s letting Eric Warren work in his area and Andy’s kind of relaying those messages and pushing my grandfather in the right direction we need to go.”

Whichever direction they go in, they’ll be joined by Richard Petty Motorsports.

The team that owns the No. 43 Chevrolet driven by Darrell Wallace Jr. entered a technical alliance with RCR and now finds its home on RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina.

“It was really cool yesterday having the King (Petty) in the room for a meeting with all of us,” Dillon said. “My grandfather, seeing those two iconic brands kind of standing together, it makes it special. I’m sure Chevrolet is excited about that, too.”

 

Richard Petty Motorsports following the footsteps of Furniture Row

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WELCOME, N.C. – All of the noise at Richard Petty Motorsports’ cozy new home on a recent Friday afternoon was coming from behind a short wall in the corner.

Several No. 43 cars were parked on the shop floor in various states of inactivity and incompletion, but the “Fusion” on the front bumper betrayed they were last year’s models.

Drew Blickensderfer, RPM’s crew chief, didn’t seem concerned as he cast a smile toward the source of the noise – a specialized fabrication department that could be the key to solving a championship-tested equation.

Less space and fewer people can equal better results.

“We have shrank quite a bit,” Blickensderfer said. “Right now, we’re bare bones, but we have the people we need to go racing and performance-wise to go racing.

“To grow into a Furniture Row, or a model similar to that, we need to get that (fabrication department) up and running.”

As RPM makes significant structural changes – switching to Chevrolet, aligning with Richard Childress Racing, shuttering its body-hanging staff – no one is expecting a quantum leap in performance for a team that finished 24th in the 2017 owner standings.

But an improvement to a top-20 car with long-term winning potential is expected, and the model is the reigning team in NASCAR’s premier series.

In winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has excelled by taking Joe Gibbs Racing chassis and optimizing the accompanying suspension parts and pieces through precision engineering and manufacturing.

RPM hopes to mirror the process through its reorganized fab department, which will have the same equipment from its previous home but with a more laser-targeted focus.

“If we can get that up and running, we’d be better off in the long run,” Blickensderfer said. “And that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to take a car from Richard Childress Racing and develop and work on it and ultimately have a better product for Sunday.”

RPM has traversed various paths toward competitiveness in recent seasons.

In 2014, the team was receiving chassis from Roush Fenway Racing but hanging its own bodies when it made the playoffs with Aric Almirola via a win at Daytona International Speedway. In 2015, RPM added chassis building to its workload but stumbled. Last year, it returned to hanging bodies on chassis supplied by Roush Fenway.

This year, RPM relocated from a 65,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville to a 20,000-square-foot space adjacent to RCR, which will deliver cars from its base just down the hill.

On arrival at RPM, all that is needed is interior (such as driver’s seat, steering wheel and column, air boxes and gear coolers) and mechanical work.

“Basically, it comes as a shell, the chassis with a body on it,” Blickensderfer said. “We do the wiring, the plumbing, the suspension parts, front and rear. Basically, all the parts you would bolt on.”

The change has allowed RPM to run leaner because there’s less work to be done on bodies. After employing about 80 last year (with 60 working on cars), RPM will have about 40 employees in 2018 with roughly 25 working on cars (about a half-dozen of those crew members will stay in the shop for assembly while the team is on the road, and RCR will supply the team’s pit crew).

The staff reduction will allow RPM to reallocate some funding toward R&D (after making zero trips to a wind tunnel last year).

Blickensderfer said the alliance with RCR should provide an aerodynamic foundation that will allow fine-tuning to have a greater impact. Last year, RPM “did a really good job of putting stuff that drove well under our race cars” but still faced the aerodynamic limitations of the Roush chassis.

“The thing that really creates speed on cars is the body and aero,” Blickensderfer said. “You can have the wrong springs in your car and mess up the other stuff a little bit, and you’d still be fast, at least in portions of the race. If you get all the springs right, and your aero is terrible, you still might be only a 20th-place car. That’s just the reality of it. The thing that is the most expensive to develop, create and implement is the aero stuff.

“So that’s why the big teams, they have all the wind tunnel data, and you’re racing against teams that are just developing faster than you can even produce cars. That’s why you’ve got to jump on board with them to get some of their information, or you’re going to be watching them coming behind you ready to lap you.”

With consolidation among chassis and engine builders an overarching trend in NASCAR for the past decade, alliances have become more prevalent. Besides RPM, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty also have similar arrangements.

But few have made it work as well as Furniture Row, which made the championship round in 2015 through an RCR alliance before switching to JGR and Toyota the next season. Relying on the setups and strategies of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex consistently outran JGR’s fleet of four Camrys in 2017 with a series-high eight victories and 19 stage wins – despite a few hundred fewer employees working at its Denver location.

“You step back and say, ‘How come no one else has been successful in that model?’ and you look at what Furniture Row has done with their model,” Blickensderfer said. “They still do some stuff in-house. So we pay RCR for an engineering agreement and to get cars from them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop ourselves. So you’d only be better off if you get extra money, you can start developing things yourself.

“Get all (the alliance team’s) information. Dump yours on top of it. You can’t help but get better in the long run that way. That’s what Cole and those guys have done. That’s the model that I would think the JTGs, the RPMs, the Germains, companies of this size, that’s what we need to strive to do is use that model to build up into that next level of race team.”

Though RPM will benefit from RCR’s aerodynamic R&D and assembly line capability, some of the information will be transferred the other way, too.

“They’re incorporating some of the stuff we had in our race cars into theirs that they think is going to make them better,” Blickensderfer said. “Before they put the body on it, we can change the brake system and do what we want, which eventually they’re going to do. And that saves us both time to make sure we have the best product.”

RPM took delivery of its first Camaro late last week for the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its hauler will be on the road Jan. 26 to Nevada, leaving about a week to finish preparing and setting up the car.

“That’s not all that tight of a timeframe,” Blickensderfer said. “What will happen in the future when we start racing is we’ll get a car two to three weeks before the event, and when we come in on a Monday morning after an event, the next week’s car is on the setup plate ready to go, so there’s only about a day’s worth of work we have to do to it.”

RPM has put its surface plates and other tools in cold storage, keeping open the option to revert to hanging bodies. But with the sponsorship landscape scarce, it makes such autonomy more difficult.

“If you could do everything yourself, you’d be better off, because then nobody gets your information,” Blickensderfer said. “But if (RCR) can take the money they’re developing cars with, and we can take the money we’re getting to develop cars and combine it, I think we all end up better. When there is less money in the pot to grab, the more of us that can throw the money in, the better we’ll be.”

Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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