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.

Xfinity Spotlight: Noah Gragson on being a Dale Jr. ‘fanboy,’ impressive Xfinity debut

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Noah Gragson admits he was a bit full of himself when he made his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2016 at ISM Raceway.

“I won a couple of K&N races, I thought I was going to be one of the top dogs and be competing for the win and that just didn’t happen,” Gragson told NBC Sports of the race where he started 14th and finished 16th.

Things started better for the 19-year-old driver in the Xfinity Series. The Las Vegas native, who competes full-time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, made his debut last weekend at Richmond Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing.

As part of a three-race deal, which continues this weekend at Talladega, Gragson started 11th, led 10 laps and fought teammate Christopher Bell for the win before placing second.

“I told myself before this weekend, I said, ‘Listen, these guys are good, you’re stepping up a level,'” Gragson said. “I just tried to remind myself that, ‘Yeah, I’m not the top dog. I’m going to get my ass stomped out here.’ That’s how I felt. I felt it was going to be a rude awakening. It wasn’t. I don’t know what was different, but I just felt a lot more comfortable. … I just felt like it came to me a little bit more. I was on my game.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Noah Gragson celebrates his first Truck win at Martinsville in 2017. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: When I last interviewed you two years ago, I asked how you viewed NASCAR growing up. You said you “didn’t respect” it because you “didn’t think it was hard.” Now that you’re more than a few years into your career, how hard is it? How easy is it compared to what you thought it would be?

Gragson: Like I said a couple of years ago, I thought NASCAR was just driving in circles, and not in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated on the sport. It’s just what I figured. You never know until you try it. … Being in it now, understanding everything that goes into it, I didn’t know there was this much preparation that goes into a weekend. That’s what I’ve been really trying to focus on this last year, I’ve been trying to change-up the way I prepare before I go the race track. Just being on top of it and not having to ask questions and already knowing the answer to those questions is the biggest thing I feel like. With enough preparation and the right preparation, you won’t have to ask any questions when you get to the race track. … It’s a lot tougher Monday through Friday than I ever figured it would be.

NBC SportsIf you could have picked any three tracks to get your Xfinity start at, would these (Richmond, Talladega, Dover) have been those tracks?

Gragson: Talladega I can assure you wouldn’t be. I’m still a little timid, a little nervous about going to Talladega. Richmond I really liked. I think I had a good idea that I would run somewhat decent just at Richmond. I really like that track, just on video games. I was hoping it would kind of translate to real life and I think it did. If I could build a top-three schedule, probably Richmond, Iowa and maybe like a road course. I also like Dover quite a bit. I feel like I run really good there on “NASCAR: Inside Line” in a Cup car on Xbox. Hopefully it’ll translate to real life.

NBC Sports: With the resources you have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports who have you been talking to the most about what to expect this weekend at Talladega?

Gragson: I haven’t really talked to anybody pretty much yet. I was going to talk to Kyle Busch maybe a little bit. He hasn’t run the Xfinity cars in a while, so I might talk to him just about some small stuff, but also probably Joey Logano. I’m working with his management team, Clutch Studios and Clutch Management. They’ve been a help to me. Joey helped me a little bit before Richmond along with Kyle Busch. I would talk to those two guys and then Eric Phillips, my crew chief and what not, try to get a game plan before we go.

NBC Sports: In your pre-race interview at Richmond you said you were more nervous than the first time you leaned in to kiss a girl. Did you wake up with that feeling Friday or did it creep in over the course of the day?

Gragson: I think it just creeped in over the course of the day and then you walk over to driver intros and everything is going off and then it hits you when you’re walking back to you car and you’re like, ‘Damn. This is real. I’m going to be making my first Xfinity start. This is a pretty cool deal, this is a big opportunity.’ You’re standing there and you’ve got everybody around you. A lot more than a truck race for sure. Just all that hype and that pressure comes together and like I said, yeah, it hits you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is big. I better go make something happen here.”

Noah Gragson drive his No. 18 Toyota in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Who did you learn the most from just by racing around them over the course of the night?

Gragson: Probably Tyler Reddick. In practice I was following him. I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was kind of at a road block where I just didn’t know where I needed to be on the race track and I went up behind him in practice and I followed him and I changed up my line a little bit closer to what he was doing and boom, I picked up a couple of tenths and we were back on pace. … I don’t think anybody knows that, but that’s probably the thing that helped me the most.

NBC Sports: Has anyone delivered you ice cream via Twitter lately?

Gragson: Breyers did. Breyers sent me some, which was really cool. … They sent me vanilla, a couple things of vanilla ice cream. Which was super cool. They saw my tweet and they said ‘We’ll get on it’ and they sent me some, which I didn’t actually think they were actually going to do, but I got a package. I was all fired up. I love some ice cream.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you because of social media?

Gragson: Probably getting followed by Dale Jr. After that whole wasabi deal last year. So I did that and he liked the tweet and retweeted it and he followed me and I was a total fanboy. … When he followed me I was losing it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dale Jr. just followed me.’ It was so awesome, so I took a screenshot. Just getting those guys to follow me is really, really cool.

NBC Sports: Which social media platform is your favorite?

Gragson: Probably Tinder. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. JK on that one. I like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Probably Instagram, then Twitter and Snapchat.

NBC Sports: Why that order?

Gragson: Snapchat use to be my favorite but it’s trash now. They messed up the whole story deal. You’d be better off trying to find a Wama on (video game) “Fortnite” than finding a story on Snapchat. … It’s really, really tough to navigate Snapchat now and I really do not enjoy it. I feel like it’s taken away a lot of my viewership, their new update.

(Writer’s Note: Earlier in the interview Gragson discussed his schedule for the week, which involved mailing merchandise purchased by fans).

NBC Sports: You talked about your new merchandise and selling it. Are your merchandise sells your primary way of measuring how large your fan base is? If not, what is?

Gragson: Probably the amount of likes I get on Instagram helps me kind of gauge. I really pay attention to the insights and data, the numbers and what not to my posts. I feel like with Instagram they have a really good way for people to see what their engagement is and other insights. I really pay a good amount of attention to that. I kind of notice when some posts get viewed more than others. Just the timing of it and what not. That’s really the biggest thing.

NBC Sports: At any point does it feel like social media is too controlling of your life, too overwhelming?

Gragson: No, I don’t feel that way. Some might not agree. It’s not bad.

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Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Talladega

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NASCAR goes restrictor-plate racing again this weekend when it takes to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway.

The Cup Series competes in Sunday’s GEICO 500 and the Xfinity Series takes part in the Sparks Energy 300.

Here’s the full weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway.

All times are Eastern.

Friday, April 27

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Cup garage open

9 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. — Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

2:35 – 3:25 p.m. –Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, April 28

8 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Cup garage open

9 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

11 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying; single car/two rounds (FS1)

12:45 p.m. — Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:05 p.m. — Cup qualifying; single car/two rounds (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 — Xfinity driver introductions.

3 p.m. — Sparks Energy 300; 113 laps/300.58 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, April 29

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — GEICO 500; 188 laps/500.08 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Podcast: Trevor Bayne needs to ‘rebuild his reputation’ as a driver

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In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement that Matt Kenseth would be returning to Roush Fenway Racing in a part-time capacity for the rest of the season, the odd man out was Trevor Bayne.

Kenseth and Bayne will share the No. 6 Ford with Kenseth making his 2018 debut May 12 at Kansas Speedway. What’s in store for them both beyond this season is unknown.

When Kenseth talked with NASCAR America’s Marty Snider after the announcement, he had yet to talk with Bayne about their new situation.

“I’ve known Trevor for a long time,” Kenseth said. “Trevor is a great, great guy. Nobody likes being in the spot he’s in necessarily right now. But I think after he thinks about it for a few days and what he really desires and what he wants out of it, knowing Trevor, I think he’s going to come in and work even harder and try to be better. So I’m looking forward to having that conversation.”

Bayne’s prospects going forward were discussed on the latest NASCAR America Debrief podcast episode with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte.

Both agreed the 2011 Daytona 500 winner will need to work to “rebuild his reputation” as a driver, with Letarte comparing Bayne’s potential future to the career of JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler and Earnhardt likening it to Justin Allgaier‘s.

“Trevor Bayne’s in a position much like Justin Allgaier was in years ago where he’s got a partner that believes in him in AdvoCare,” Earnhardt said. “If I’m him, I’m on the phone with them right now and talking to them, ‘Do you want to work with me in the future, we can go over here and look at this opportunity or look at this opportunity in Xfinity or the Truck Series,’ wherever it is. I would be trying to make sure I have a very strong relationship with them because that’s going to be the key to making any move to continue his driving career.

“He’s unlikely to get an opportunity that’s rewarding without some financial support.”

Earnhardt added: “He has to rebuild his reputation as a race car driver and that’s the only way to do it, is to go win races and run well.”

Letarte said he believes the situation between Kenseth, Bayne and Roush Fenway is “past awkward” given Bayne’s results. He has run in the top 15 in 10.5 percent of the laps run this season. Bayne’s average finish is 23.9 — compared to 19.5 last year — and he ranks 25th in the series in average running position (23.0).

“I think if anybody finds this awkward, then shame on them,” Letarte said. “Let’s just be honest. Stats tell a pretty accurate story. Comparing your teammates, comparing the field, there’s a hundred different ways you can do this. If at any point Trevor Bayne is shocked or anything like that, then shame on his own management team and Roush Fenway for leading him down this path of disbelief that everything was going to be OK.

“Should he be upset? Sure. Emotion comes into it. Is it going to be awkward the first time they meet? Yes. But I think Trevor Bayne should be and I will say is smart enough to realize, ‘the more awkward this is, the worse it probably is for me.’ ”

Letarte also assessed how he viewed Kenseth’s return for the future health of Roush Fenway despite the lack of detail about how long the deal is with the 2003 series champion.

“I love the fact that they didn’t try to put structure around everything,” Letarte said. “Not every road trip can be planned, A -to-B, every stop. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey man, it’s cold here, we’re heading south, we’re going to get on 85 and see where we go.’ And that’s what I heard from Roush Fenway. ‘Where we’re at is no good. We’ve been to the right and it’s no good, so we’re going to go to the left and that involves Matt Kenseth.”

Earnhardt believes Kenseth will return to Roush next season as the full-time driver of the No. 6.

“That’s my hope if I’m an owner of the car, that this change brings performance,” he said. “I think that’s what Matt wants. And Matt said that he doesn’t think he’s a long-term solution for the 6 car. He sees an opportunity to try to improve the team and help the team on all fronts.

“He comes in there and does really well in the car, fires up some partners, sparks some interest from Corporate America to get involved in the team, and then they can move on to the next season with Matt as the full-time driver. I don’t believe you keep Matt and Bayne together as a part-time deal. That doesn’t happen.”

To listen to this week’s NASCAR America Debrief, click here for Apple Podcasts, here for Stitcher, here for Google Play, or play the Art19 embed below.

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NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals secret to Talladega success

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In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed the secret to his success at Talladega.

“I always made people feel like we were best friends until I didn’t need them anymore,” Earnhardt said. ”To win at plate races, you’ve got to be everybody’s best friend and then turn around and be the biggest jerk you’ve ever been in your life when it matters.”

Describing his 2003 victory in the Aaron’s 499 – his fourth straight win at Talladega SuperSpeedway – Earnhardt walked Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte and Rick Allen through a play-by-play of what he was doing during the final five laps.

Some highlights include:

“I’m getting ready to get some good help from behind. The 48 looks like he’s in trouble, but he jumps in front of the 22 and they get a real good push down the back straightaway. Now, I’ve got no help. I’m freaking out a little bit because their run looks pretty good on the outside.”

“Here, they’re trying to pin me behind the 16, but I wasn’t having anything to do with that and that hurt Ward (Burton) a little bit.”

“I pushed Matt (Kenseth) up way far, so the 48 is waiting, waiting, waiting. They’re thinking about side drafting each other a little bit, but they’re not too sure. Matt goes up there to side draft now, not really paying attention to me. Here I come with a great push from Elliott Sadler to get by them both. That was just luck that Matt wasn’t really paying attention there.”

“I stay in the gas. I never really rode the brake to back myself up to anybody. I always just waited on them to get to me. If I needed the pack to get closer, I would take a longer route; just drive higher in the corner.”

For more insight into Earnhardt’s secret to success, watch the above video.