Tony Stewart on his tough season, being home and Brian France’s presence

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Tony Stewart took lots of questions Tuesday about his mediocre season in NASCAR, but the driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing essentially had one answer.

He can’t put a finger on why he is off to the worst start of his Sprint Cup career.

“Honestly, I don’t know that because I haven’t figured it out,” said Stewart, who has only one top 10 (sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway) at the midpoint of the 36-race schedule. “It’s a scenario that when you drive for so long, you’re used to one thing. Coming into this year and taking the amount of horsepower they took out was a pretty radical change for the Cup Series.

“I think it was more the horsepower reduction than it was anything that I feel like has hurt me this year.  I’ve grown up driving high‑horsepower cars, high power‑to‑weight ratio cars.  This hasn’t been what I’m used to feeling.”

NASCAR stripped about 125 horsepower from its cars this season while also reducing downforce. In last Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, a decreased spoiler meant even less downforce, but it still brought a similar result for Stewart, who finished 33rd.

Speaking with the news media, Stewart said he likes crew chief Chad Johnston and doesn’t hold him responsible for the struggles of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

“I don’t feel like he’s what’s holding us back,” he said. “There’s something about the way this package is that just doesn’t suit my driving style.

“I’m holding him and the team back.  So it’s just a matter of me trying to figure it out, figure out how to go forward and get our cars better.”

Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, will play host to its third annual Camping World Truck Series event next week before the Columbus, Ind., native heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to compete at his hometown Brickyard 400.

“It’s two weeks coming up that I really look forward to, honestly,” he said.

That was among the few times Stewart’s mood brightened during the 30-minute conference call. Another was when he was asked where he thought NASCAR was making its greatest strides, Stewart said it was the collaboration within the industry, citing interaction with the recently formed driver’s council and last year’s Race Team Alliance (Stewart is affiliated with both).

“If I had to look and say what I thought was the greatest thing, it’s seeing NASCAR as a whole work with the teams and the drivers and be more accommodating as far as having the Drivers Council, the RTA,” he said. “That’s something in the 17 years I’ve been in the Cup Series I’ve never seen.

“It was all right to walk in the trailer and give them an idea, and that’s as far as it always went.  Now you’re actually having meetings, working hand‑in‑hand with NASCAR.  I think that’s something that I’ve never seen in this sport, which to me is really exciting as a driver and owner.  I think it’s great.

“As far as the flip side of that, I really don’t know what the answer is for that.  But I definitely think that seeing NASCAR’s involvement on the more personal side, I’d love to see Brian France show up at some of these council meetings and stuff, but I’m sure he’s busy.”

Other highlights from Stewart’s interview heading into Sunday’s 5 Hour Energy 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

Q: New Hampshire is a track that you had some success (three wins). What is your mindset coming into this race?

STEWART: “Honestly, we’re just kind of trying to get our program back on track.  I don’t know that we’ve circled any track and said anything right now.  It’s been a disappointing year up to this point.  It seems like no matter what the package is, we seem to fight the same balance. So we’re desperately trying to figure out what it’s going to take to move the needle, I guess, so to speak.  You hope you get it done at a race like the Brickyard, for sure.  The big thing is trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to find out what we got to do to move the needle a little bit.”

Q: What was your take on the rules changes at Kentucky and what effect will it have on the season?

STEWART: “Well, I think honestly I’m not sure I’m the best judge of it.  We’re fighting the handling of our car so bad right now that I’m not sure I’m a real good judge of it. It was a pretty considerable change package‑wise going into this weekend.  Balance‑wise my car didn’t change.  I think there’s guys that could tell you a lot more accurately about what the feel of it was better than I could at this point because we weren’t close enough to getting our car driving good to really understand it.

Q: In 2011, you had such a dynamic improvement during the Chase (winning five of 10 races).  Do you see any signs that you could have a similar improvement over the second half of this year or do you see more the improvements being more gradual?

STEWART:  Honestly, when we had the improvements in 2011, it literally was overnight.  I didn’t see that coming obviously then.  So to tell you whether it’s going to be gradual or all at once, that’s hard to say, as well. To me, I don’t care how we get there.  I don’t care if it takes one week or if it takes six weeks to get there, the main thing is just getting there. We’re going to keep working hard and keep pushing to try to find that.  With the way this format is, all it takes is one good race for us to get in.  If we can find whatever it is that we’ve been missing, one race can change our whole season.  That’s the driving force every week.

Q: With the Brickyard being such a special place for you, are you excited about going there and racing at home?  Or when you’re struggling, is there some dread?

STEWART:  Well, I don’t think it’s any secret to anybody that we’re struggling.  So, you’re always excited to race at home.  I’m always excited to be at the Brickyard.  That’s just a place that’s special to me.                It’s disheartening that we’re not running good.  But I guess it would be a ton worse if we were running really well and all of a sudden we got to the Brickyard and didn’t run well at the Brickyard.  That would be worst‑case scenario. I think for us right now, we’ll still work as hard as we can to get the best result we can get out of it.

Q: From an ownership standpoint, do you believe that NASCAR is headed in the right direction with these rules packages?

STEWART:  Yeah, anything that’s going to make the fans happier, put better races on is in all of our best interests.  The part that’s hard for the teams is the process. Changing this, changing that.  All that cost comes out of our pockets.  It doesn’t come out of NASCAR’s pocket.  NASCAR decides they want to change something, we’re the ones that have to spend the money to do it.  They don’t spend a dime to do it.  That’s the part that’s hard. I think all of the owners will do whatever’s in the best interest of making it better.  I just would like to see NASCAR share some of that expense vs. saying, ‘Hey, we got an idea, we want to try this, then the teams have to spend all the money to do it.’

Q: Jeff Gordon announced he’s retiring at the end of this year, which seems to be a little bit younger than some other drivers.  On the other end of the scale, you have Mark Martin racing till he was in his early 50s.  When you look at your career and your future, how much longer do you see yourself doing this?

STEWART:  Right now I’m just trying to figure out how to get my car working, to be honest with you.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.