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.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.

 

 

Friday 5: Will fan access to in-car cameras lead to calls for penalties?

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Did NASCAR make the right decision to penalize William Byron 25 points and $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution two days after the incident happened?

It’s a question that will be answered in Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal. 

But this reaches a broader issue. With fans having more access to video elements of the sport, how much influence could or should they have in exposing potential penalties moving forward?

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted after last weekend’s race at Texas that series officials did not see Byron hit Hamlin.

MORE: Alex Bowman to miss Talladega race 

While video from the USA broadcast suggested that Byron spun Hamlin, an official could question if Hamlin brake-checked Byron and initiated the contact as opposed to Byron running into him.

That question was cleared up three minutes after green-flag racing resumed when NASCAR’s Twitter account posted video from Byron’s in-car camera that showed him running into the back of Hamlin’s car. 

After the race, Byron admitted he ran into Hamlin, although Byron said he did not mean to spin Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin had raced him a few laps earlier, causing Byron to hit the wall.

“I didn’t mean to spin him out,” Byron said after the race. “That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did.”

The in-car camera video from Byron’s car was a view that fans can have as part of a program that began with the start of the playoffs. Fans can watch in-car camera views from every car in the race through the NASCAR Mobile App and on NASCAR Drive on NASCAR.com. 

The TV broadcast did not have access to those in-car views. Miller noted that the officials also did not have access. That likely will change.

In this case, it was NASCAR’s social media account that made people aware of what Byron did. Moving forward, what if it is a fan that spots something that officials don’t catch and TV doesn’t show? What if that fan posts a video clip of an incident from a particular in-car camera? Should that lead to a penalty either during the event or days later?

Golf faced a similar issue within the last decade before stating that effective Jan. 1, 2018, the game’s major professional tours would no longer accept calls or emails from fans who think they had spotted a rules violation. Instead, the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, among others, stated they would assign at least one official to monitor all tournament telecasts and resolve any rules issues.

“It’s a tricky deal,” Ryan Blaney said. “Especially with the rise of social media and all the accessibility that the internet can give with all these live feeds from every single car, which I think is a good idea, but there could be some controversy in certain situations.”

Those watching last weekend’s Cup race posted video of a violation. NASCAR didn’t penalize Ty Gibbs after door-slammed Ty Dillon on pit road during the race. Video clips of the incident quickly showed up on social media shortly after the incident. 

Series officials typically review the races on Tuesday and that’s an opportunity for them to assess penalties on incidents they’ve gathered more information on.

NASCAR docked Gibbs 25 points and fined him $75,000 for the incident Tuesday. It marked his second penalty this year for contact on pit road. Gibbs was fined $15,000 for hitting Sam Mayer’s car on pit road after the Xfinity race at Martinsville.

Another key is issue with officiating in any sport is if it is better to be right, even if it comes a couple of days after an event, or if is something is missed during the event, then so be it?

Section 4.4.C of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be docked 25-50 points (driver and team owner points), fined $50,000 – $100,000 and/or suspended a race, indefinitely or terminated for a series of events, including “Intentional wrecking another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result.”

So, even if NASCAR had penalized Byron during the event, officials could have further penalized him on Tuesday. It’s not a situation where there is either a penalty during the race or after. It can be both. 

Ryan Blaney says he would prefer a decision made in the moment and if not, let it go.

“I don’t want to have to wonder if something is going to happen days later,” he said. “I think you’ve got to take a little bit more time and try to get things right in the moment because a lot of these things can be game-changing outcomes.”

Byron’s penalty is an example. He left Texas third in the playoff standings, 17 points above the cutline. With the penalty, he’s eight points below the cutline. 

2. Race for stage points

One of the questions going into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) is what should playoff drivers do. Should they ride at the back to help their chances of making it to the finish to score big points? Or should they run at the front and go for stage points while also being at greater risk of being collected in a crash?

Kyle Larson, who is 23 points above the cutline in third place, said he doesn’t see playoff drivers riding in the back.

“There’s so many stage points on the line, and if you can get those stage points, then even if you do wreck, you’ll have a decent points day out of it,” he said. “I foresee everybody racing pretty hard.”

Should any driver ride in the back early in a stage, they’ll likely need to be in the top 10 with 10 laps in the stage to have a good chance at stage points. 

In the spring Talladega race, 75% of the drivers in a top 10 spot with 10 laps to go in either of the first two stages finished in the top 10 and scored points.

Larson scored 17 stage points at Talladega. Add that to his fourth-place finish and he left there with 50 points. Only three other drivers scored more than 40 points that race: Martin Truex Jr. (45), Chase Elliott (44) and winner Ross Chastain (42).

All four of those drivers also were in the top 10 with 10 laps to go in the race. Chastain ran no lower than fourth in those final laps before taking the lead on the final lap. 

Chastain won that race after overcoming a pit road speeding penalty in the first stage. He did not score points in the first stage.  He got his lap back at the caution for the stage break and steadily worked his way up in the second stage, finishing ninth. 

As for his plan Sunday?

“We’re still talking through them,” Chastain said. “It’s not race day yet … we don’t have to have our plan yet. It would be bad if we already had our marching orders written down and we knew what we we were doing because it needs to be a more fluid experience. We’ll see how the race starts.”

3. RCR Turnaround

In the 14 races since NBC/USA took over broadcasting the Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have each won a series-high four races. 

RCR’s wins have been by Tyler Reddick at Road America, Reddick at the Indianapolis road course, Austin Dillon at Daytona and Reddick last weekend at Texas. 

That’s four wins in a 13-race stretch for RCR. It took the organization 192 races to win its last four races before this recent stretch.

“The new car did level playing field,” said Andy Petree, competition director at RCR. “That was one of the things. What happened over the years is that some of these mega-teams have been able to build an advantage into their equipment.”

It’s more than that. The four wins by Reddick and Dillon double what the organization had the previous fours seasons. They’ve combined for 13 top-three finishes, including a 1-2 run at Daytona in the regular-season finale in August. 

In comparison, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — the past two Cup champions — have combined for six wins and 12 top-three finishes this season.

Reddick and Dillon also have combined 14 top-five finishes. That equals the number of top fives the organization had the previous four seasons combined. Reddick’s 439 laps led is more than the organization’s combined total (410) the past four seasons. 

“Obviously the drivers are more important now because everything is so close,” Petree said. “The drivers can make a big difference. Our pit crews have stepped it up this year. There are a lot of reasons why we have been as successful as we’ve been.”

4. Number crunching

A few things to ponder:

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the last two races with Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. That’s more than the organization had led in the previous 105 races combined. RFK Racing’s 417 laps led this season is the organization’s most since 2013.

The driver leading at the white flag finished fifth or worse in each of the last four Talladega races that went the full distance. Erik Jones led at the white flag in the spring race. He finished sixth.

The driver winning the Talladega Cup playoff race has never gone on to win the championship that season.

Kyle Busch is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all three races at Daytona and Talladega this season. He placed sixth in the Daytona 500. He was third at Talladega in the spring. He was 10th at Daytona in August.

A stage winner has not gone on to win the event in the last 11 races.

The 19 different winners this season is tied for the most in a season all-time with 1956, ’58, ’61 and 2001.

5. 600th race

Sunday will mark the 600th career Cup race for Rodney Childers as a Cup crew chief. He becomes the 15th crew chief in series history with at least 600 starts.

He and Kevin Harvick have been together since 2014. Their 313 races together is the longest streak among active driver/crew chief combinations. 

Harvick and Childers have combined to win 37 races, including two this season, and the 2014 championship in that stretch. 

Alex Bowman to miss Talladega due to concussion-like symptoms

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Alex Bowman will miss Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms following his accident last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports stated Thursday afternoon.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to miss a race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash. Kurt Busch has not returned to racing since he crashed July 23 at Pocono. Busch said this week that he remains “hopeful” he can return this season. Six races remain in the season, including Sunday’s race at Talladega.

Noah Gragson will fill in for Bowman.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that Bowman, who is last in the playoff standings, was evaluated by physicians Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Provided Bowman returns, he likely will need to win the Oct. 9 race at the Charlotte Roval to avoid playoff elimination.

Bowman brought out the caution on Lap 98 of the 334-lap race at Texas when a tire blew and backed into the wall in Turn 4. The car then hit the SAFER barrier with the right side. Bowman continued, finishing the race 29th, five laps behind winner Tyler Reddick.

Drivers have stated that rear impacts have felt worse than they looked with the new car.

From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this summer. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer.”

Christopher Bell said in June that he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May.

Denny Hamlin said earlier this month he feels better about what NASCAR is looking to do with the car after conversations with series officials.

“I certainly feel that they’re working to help us with the hits on the chassis,” Hamlin aid. “All that stuff does take time. They can’t just knee-jerk reaction and start cutting bars out of the chassis, that’s very irresponsible.

“I think they’re doing things methodically to make sure that the next revision of car that comes out is one that is improved in the areas that we need improving on, but that does take time through design and testing.”

Gragson was to have driven the No. 62 car for Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Cup race. Justin Allgaier will drive the car with Gragson moving to the No. 48 car.