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

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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.

NASCAR fines seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations at Las Vegas

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations from the Cup and Xfinity races this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

In the Cup Series, NASCAR issued fines to crew chiefs Matt McCall (Kurt Busch), Greg Erwin (Matt DiBenedetto) and Seth Barbour (John Hunter Nemechek) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Bruce Schlicker (Ross Chastain), Dave Rogers (Riley Herbst), Ben Beshore (Harrison Burton) and Brian Wilson (Austin Cindric) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $5,000.

 

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)