Tony Stewart says support for Danica Patrick is ‘unwavering’

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Tony Stewart issued a statement a day after Danica Patrick announced she would no longer be with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season.

Stewart posted his message Wednesday morning on Facebook:

“I’ve always been a believer in Danica’s ability as a racecar driver and that continues to be the case. She’s one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. She has never backed down from a challenge. In fact, she’s sought out new challenges throughout her career, and that’s what brought her to NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing.

“Making the jump from INDYCAR to NASCAR is not easy, yet she had the courage to do so and put up better numbers than a lot of other drivers who have tried to make that same transition. I’m proud of how hard Danica has worked during her time at Stewart-Haas Racing, and she continues to work hard.

“My support for Danica is unwavering. We’re going to end this season strong and make the most of these last 10 races.”

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Long: Richmond calls raise questions about NASCAR officiating heading into playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR told competitors before Saturday night’s race to let the event play out naturally on the track.

“We don’t want to get involved.’’

But NASCAR did in comical and confounding ways that raise questions about its officiating as the Cup playoffs begin this coming weekend.

Questionable cautions and questionable actions befuddled drivers Saturday night.

Where to start?

How about this: A wayward ambulance nearly cost Matt Kenseth a spot in the playoffs.

Just stop and ponder that.

Rarely have the words ambulance and racing produced such a ridiculous image since the time a gurney Buddy Baker was strapped to flew out of an ambulance and on to a track as cars sped by.

Had Kenseth lost his playoff spot because of an ambulance, it would have raised the specter of if NASCAR should add him to the postseason — as it added Jeff Gordon under different circumstances in 2013.

There’s more.

Saturday’s overtime finish was set up by a caution for a car 16 laps behind the leaders. A NASCAR official stated that debris came off the car, necessitating the caution.

Fine, but the bigger question is why was Derrike Cope on the track in the final laps?

His incident brought out a caution on Lap 398 of a scheduled 400-lap race. He was five laps down from the closest car, thus had no chance of gaining any positions in the regulation length.

Yet, by being out of the track — as is his right — his actions created a caution that changed the race’s outcome. Martin Truex Jr. led when the caution waved but wrecked on the last lap and finished 20th, while Kyle Larson won.

As the playoffs begin, NASCAR should order cars that are too many laps down from gaining any positions off the track in the final laps to avoid a repeat of what happened Saturday.

While some will say that every driver should be allowed to continue in case a race goes to overtime and they can gain spots there, drivers so far back should lose that right for the betterment of the race.

Also, it doesn’t do the sport — or the competitor that causes the caution in such a situation — any good.

The result was that an upset Truex was awarded a regular-season trophy after the race with the look of a person who had just had multiple root canals, found out the IRS wanted to audit him and that even his dog had turned its back on him.

Whee!

Oh yes, the race’s second caution was a quick trigger by NASCAR for what was described in the race report as smoke after Kenseth locked his brakes attempting to lap Danica Patrick.

“Smoke.” Not as in Tony Stewart but “smoke.”

Officiating affects every sport, but as the 10-race playoffs begin, the focus becomes sharper on everything NASCAR does and doesn’t do.

Since criticism for a debris caution late in the Michigan race in June, NASCAR has called fewer debris cautions, allowing for long stretches of green-flag racing regardless of how far the leader has pulled away.

This direction came a year too late for Carl Edwards in the championship race, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted Sunday morning in a tweet.

At Homestead, NASCAR called for a caution with 15 laps to go after Dylan Lupton wobbled through Turn 2 but continued in a seemingly innocuous incident.

Edwards led but on the ensuring restart blocked Joey Logano’s charge and wrecked, ending Edwards’ title hopes. The two cautions helped Jimmie Johnson win his record-tying seventh series title.

Maybe something else would have happened that would have required a caution in that race but should NASCAR’s season finale — or any other race — be determined in such a way?

No.

That’s why as each team examines all it can do these final 10 races, NASCAR needs to examine its officiating policies and makes sure that it abides by its hope of not wanting to be a factor in the race.

One only can hope Saturday night’s missteps are avoided the next 10 weeks, or a cloud could hang over the postseason.

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One chance: Tonight marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final opportunity to make playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t dealing with fairy tales as he looks ahead to tonight’s race at Richmond Raceway.

The sport’s most popular driver — winless in his last 44 starts — must win to be eligible to contend for a championship in his final full-time Cup season.

“If we had to line-up and race,’’ Earnhardt said Friday afternoon, “I think we’ve got about a sixth- to 12th-place car.

“We could run a fast lap that was a top-10 lap in the first two practices in race trim. After about 30 laps, we were behind the Penske guys on speed and we were behind all the Toyotas on speed by a tenth (of a second) or two. Our teammates don’t look any better. So, I don’t know that we can look in that direction to lean on those guys too much.

“We tried some things in the second practice that won’t get us front-end speed, but we did some things that I think will help our car on the long run. We’ve got to just hope that’s going to work for us in the race.’’

If it does, Earnhardt will follow in the path of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who each qualified for the playoffs in their final full-time seasons in Cup.

If not, then Earnhardt will have 10 races left in a Cup career that has seen him win 26 series races, including two Daytona 500s, and finish in the top five in points three times.

As he gets closer to his final Cup race, he is being asked to reflect more on his career. Friday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered as a driver.

“I hope that people thought I was good and had some talent,’’ Earnhardt said. “Doesn’t matter to me where on the scale I rank, I just hope people credit me with having some ability.  

“I hope they see me as someone that raced my competitors with respect. That I raced hard, but with respect. There are guys out there that I enjoy racing against, and I hope that is the way people view me, my competitors at least. It’s a big body of work. Looking over my Xfinity races and all the Cup races, I think there is a lot to chew on there and a lot of substance. 

“I feel pretty confident that I made a good impact on the race track as a driver – visually and on paper. Definitely enjoyed a lot of years. There were some bad ones, but I don’t know a lot of drivers that haven’t had some down years. I feel really, really lucky that I had a chance to rebound from that. I didn’t know if we would make it back to victory lane but we got ourselves righted and we won a few more races over the last several years. I think I am a pretty good race car driver, and I hope that people acknowledge that part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins tonight, he would rank it among his top victories in a career that has seen him win in the first Cup race after 9/11 and the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It would be one of the biggest top-five wins of my career if we were to do that considering the circumstances of win and get in and we’d be in the playoffs and all that good stuff,’’ Earnhardt said.“So, that would be fun.’’

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NASCAR America: So long veteran drivers, hello the new young guns

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NASCAR’s changing of the guard is happening before our eyes as veteran drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are moving out of the way and paving the path to the future for millennials like Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon.

On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, our analysts talked about how the sport is changing, with Gordon and Stewart retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring at the end of this season, and likely several others retiring over the next few years.

And in another segment of Thursday’s NASCAR America, NBC’s Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan talked about NASCAR’s up-and-coming young drivers — including William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson — who provide a bright future for the sport.

Check out that video below:

 

Catching up with Brian Vickers: Health is good, hopes to race again

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With his health issues well in check, Brian Vickers still has the passion and desire to drive a race car, particularly in NASCAR.

And at 33 years old, he still has a good number of years ahead of him behind the wheel.

He just needs a quality ride.

And that has proven to be the tricky part.

Vickers was last in a NASCAR Cup car in 2016, when he filled in five races for Tony Stewart, who was recovering from an off-season incident while driving a sand dune buggy.

But there have been no rides since.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think and appreciate what the sport did for me,” Vickers said. “I do miss it.”

In a way, Vickers has kind of moved on, keeping busy with other activities, including being back on NBCSN’s NASCAR America as an analyst for several shows last week.

He’s also joined an investment group, with plans of taking a medical device company public in the next couple of months.

But more than anything, Vickers wants back on a racetrack.

“First question people ask is, ‘Do you miss it (racing)?’” Vickers told NBC Sports. “Absolutely, of course. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. If I go back and run five more years, I’m still going to miss it. And if I never race again, I’m always going to miss it.

“I’ve talked to some guys that have been retired before me. They may be retired 10 years after a 20-some year career, and they still miss it. Once it’s in your blood, that never changes.

“The question for me now is here’s the position you’re in. What do you do with your life? I don’t know if I have all the perfect, clear answers. I’ve just been following where the opportunities lie and follow what my heart and gut tell me as far as my racing career and everything else I’ve been doing.”

During his five-race stint for Stewart, Vickers showed he still has it, including a seventh-place finish at Martinsville and 13th at Fontana.

He’s had several opportunities to return to NASCAR since, but they just haven’t been a good fit.

“I stay in touch with all the owners, people in the industry, agents and all my relationships to find out what’s going on in the sport and where,” he said. “There just hasn’t been a situation that’s made sense for me. At this place in my life and career, would I love to be in a winning car? Absolutely.

“Do I want to get into a situation or car where I’m going to the racetrack and don’t feel like I can win when I show up? No.

“There’s opportunities with really good cars that have been presented to me but it was contingent on sponsorship or manufacturer, various things, and that’s been out of my control to a certain extent.

“But if something good comes along tomorrow, I’m in.”

One thing Vickers wants to make very clear is the health problems – including blood clots and heart issues – he’s endured over the years are all fully under control.

“My health is good,” he said. “I found a way to race safely and not have to worry about blood clots. Nothing has really changed from that end.”

Vickers keeps his phone close in case an opportunity arises that would put him back in a top-level ride.

“I’ve got my NASCAR gold Cup license, have done all my medical and drug tests and everything I’ve had to do to get your license, impact tests, head tests, medical clearance, you name it,” Vickers said. “I could come back and race next weekend if someone wants.”

But Vickers is also a realist. He knows there are team owners that are reluctant to hire him because of his past health issues.

“I get it, for a car owner or sponsor it’s a hard sell, they’re worried that I’ll have another health issue like in the past,” Vickers said. “I feel I proved last year in the 14 car that that’s not a concern, I’m clear, I can race safely without blood clots.

“My doctor worked really, really hard to find a perfect regimen to keep me safe from clots and has allowed me to race. That hasn’t changed.”

Vickers would prefer to race again in NASCAR, but is open to anything on four wheels, including sports cars, endurance racing and even IndyCar.

“I’m open for all of it,” Vickers said. “I really enjoyed the (World Endurance Championship) series, racing the 24 Hours of LeMans, racing in Europe, racing all over the world and in the U.S. If that opportunity presented itself, I’d be all over it.”

But Vickers has also come to grips that his racing future may never be.

“I’m basically saying to myself that I’m comfortable with the fact I may never race again,” he said. “It’s not a question of desire, want or health, it’s just a matter of finding the right situation.

“To have 15 years of experience and I’m only 33, I’ve learned and grown a lot as a person and learned more than you can ever learn going through the trials and tribulations I have. I had to overcome adversity and all these attributes going through the near-death experience that I had.

“There’s no question in my mind that I’m the best driver today than I’ve ever been in my entire career, even though I’ve been out of the car for a year.”

Vickers’ last NASCAR Cup win came at New Hampshire in 2013. He believes he still has more wins in him; he just needs a strong team to give him a chance.

Vickers and wife Sarah have lived in the Miami area for more than a decade. When his racing days are over, he’s considering one opportunity that may be surprising.

“Politics has always intrigued me,” Vickers said. “I love the subject, I’m passionate about it. It started in history class when I was a kid.

“I have a bunch of people that know me well say that I should (pursue politics), but I haven’t made any decision. I don’t know if I ever will or if I may. It’s certainly an option but not anytime soon.”

Vickers admits that all the adversity he’s gone through in his career has made him a better and more aware person.

“When you’re laying on your death bed or going through a situation where you may not come out the other side, or you have a massive embolism that forms when you’re going in for open-heart surgery with not-so-great odds of coming out on the other side, you think about a lot of things,” he said. “What I learned through that experience is I loved racing more than I thought at the time. When you do some things long enough, you tend to take them for granted, whether it’s your racing career, your significant other or your friends. It’s human nature.

“It also made me realize there’s a whole other world out there, there’s a lot of things that I never could do because I was so 100 percent focused on racing. I’m very happy, I miss racing, would love to be in a race car. I think I’m a better driver today than I’ve ever been in my life. I think I can go win a championship.

“But if that opportunity doesn’t present itself, I’m still going to be a happy person and go work hard to accomplish other things and check off other boxes.”

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