Long: The many faces, moods and sides of Tony Stewart


KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – He’s a racer, comedian and antagonist. Equally fiery and compassionate, rebellious and reverent, Tony Stewart’s life has played before our eyes. Some things people didn’t want to see. Other things people couldn’t stop watching.

Wednesday, with cameras on him, the 44-year-old Stewart proved there is one competitor he can’t beat, the same competitor Jeff Gordon couldn’t beat or any other driver before them – time. Stewart will leave the Sprint Cup Series after the 2016 season but plans to race elsewhere and remain involved in NASCAR as an owner. Clint Bowyer takes Stewart’s ride in 2017.

“There’s still the opportunity to get fined, and there’s still the opportunity to be put on probation, just like always, just from a different capacity than now,’’ Stewart joked.

He unleashed one-liners and quips in the 50-minute session with reporters Wednesday at Stewart-Haas Racing, making the afternoon a breezy affair, unlike the decision to retire.

Stewart’s dilemma was that racing is all he’s done. He was 2 months old when his parents placed him in the seat of a go-kart. A 2-year-old Stewart puttered around on a plastic motorcycle wearing a Tupperware bowl as a helmet. A few years later, he was running circles in the family’s garage on his Big Wheel.

One winter night, Stewart’s father noticed a different sound as his son raced the Big Wheel in the garage. When Nelson Stewart turned, he saw his son leaning over and riding with one wheel off the ground.

“I thought that if that kid has got that kind of balance, he needs to be in a race car,’’ Nelson Stewart said years later.

So began Tony Stewart’s career.

Next year, his Sprint Cup career will end.

“You run through the range of emotions,’’ Stewart said of deciding when to retire. “There’s days you’re like, I can’t wait, and then there’s days that are like, man, do I …  you battle back and forth.’’

As one ponders the future – Stewart considered retiring after this season before pushing it back a year – it’s also time to reflect upon the past. Stewart’s is a mix of spectacular highlights and stunning lowlights.

“I think there’s things that I would like to have skipped in my life and things that have not happened, but I think everything in the big picture has happened for a reason and is part of something that’s a lot bigger than what we are in this room,’’ he said.

Only four men have won more NASCAR Sprint Cup championships than Stewart’s three. Each title marked change. His first crown in 2002 came amid controversy from striking a photographer earlier that season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His sponsor fined him $50,000 and nearly severed ties with Stewart.

His 2005 championship was a celebration of his team, giving his crew a title without as much of the rancor that surrounded the first crown.

His final title in 2011, which he calls his most gratifying accomplishment, reminded all of his talent. After going winless in the first 26 races, he won five of the 10 Chase races to win the championship in a tiebreaker against Carl Edwards. The crown came despite telling crew chief Darian Grubb midway through the Chase that Grubb would not be back with the team the following year.

When Stewart leaves next year, gone will be the competitor whose attitude most resembled that of Dale Earnhardt. Stewart’s kindness and surliness are unquestioned, whether directed toward competitors, NASCAR, media or others.

Five years after Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500, Stewart called for NASCAR to end bump drafting, saying that “somebody is going to die at Daytona or Talladega” unless the practice was stopped. The words were profound coming from Stewart. He had crashed earlier in the 2001 Daytona, suffering a concussion and sore ribs, and was in the emergency room when Earnhardt was brought to Halifax Health Medical Center after his fatal accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Two days after Stewart’s comments, NASCAR stated it would penalize excessive bump drafting. A few days after that, NASCAR penalized Stewart for running Matt Kenseth into the grass and causing Kenseth to crash. It was a move made in retaliation for one Kenseth made on Stewart earlier in the race.

One of Stewart’s most memorable rants came after finishing second in Atlanta in 2008. He exited his car and blasted Goodyear, saying: “This is the worst tire I’ve been on in my life. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is dismounting anything that has Goodyear on it and putting Firestone or something else on it so I feel a lot safer.’’

Eventually, the two sides reconnected.

Stewart has had his share of run-ins with several competitors through the years, including tossing a helmet at Kenseth’s car in 2012 at Bristol, reportedly striking Kurt Busch in the NASCAR hauler in 2008 at Daytona, and throwing his heat shields at Kenny Irwin’s car and climbing partially into the vehicle as Irwin drove by after an incident at Martinsville in 1999.

Irwin died the following season in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart won the race that weekend and gave the trophy to Irwin’s parents a few days later, a gesture that all but made Irwin’s mother speechless years later as she tried to talk about it.

Stewart’s charity extended to others in the sport. His foundation pledged $1 million to the Victory Junction Gang Camp in 2003. He often has flown friends or family members to be with injured drivers. He most recently flew members of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson’s family to Pennsylvania after Wilson’s accident at Pocono in August. Wilson died the day after the accident.

Through the years, Stewart has touched those in racing in many ways. Some will look upon him favorably, others will not. Some will see only the recent struggles – a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in 2013 and his involvement in a fatal sprint car incident last year that has spawned a wrongful death lawsuit. Stewart said his recent struggles on and off the track played no role in his decision to leave Cup after next year.

Now, 44 races remain in Stewart’s career with eight this season and 36 next year. He has one more chance to win an elusive Daytona 500 and Southern 500, then his Cup career will be finished.

For all that Stewart has done, he might be best recalled as the late Crocky Wright did. A former midget racer, Wright easily recalled the first time he saw Stewart race a three-quarter midget. It was July 18, 1989.

“He was just a flash back to the old days the way he was driving,’’ Wright once said. “The way they go up on the rail on the fence all around. Today, most of them hug the inside pole. But he was right up there on the fence. I just knew he was going to be a great driver.’’

Each July 18 until he died in 2009, Wright used to purchase a cake to commemorate seeing Stewart race.

Now, there is only one more July 18 before the end of Stewart’s Cup career.

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.