NASCAR

Tony Stewart making final start at Richmond, site of first Sprint Cup win

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There once was a time when Tony Stewart was just Tony Stewart.

Back before “Smoke” came along.

Years before the three Sprint Cup championships, the 49 wins, the notorious Bristol helmet toss and garage area driver confrontations, Stewart was a NASCAR rookie.

Though your memories of it may be fuzzy, that time was 17 years ago.

And 17 years ago this week in 1999, Stewart earned his first Sprint Cup win at Richmond International Raceway, or “The Action Track.”

The race was the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, the 25th points event of the season, held on Sept. 11, 1999.

That week, the No. 1 movie at the box office was the supernatural horror film Stigmata starring Patricia Arquette, which ended a six-week reign by The Sixth Sense.

The song at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 was “Bailamos” by Enrique Iglesias.

In Richmond, Stewart entered the race fifth in points, behind Jeff Gordon and ahead of Jeff Burton, who had won the 50th Southern 500 the week before.

Up until that point, Stewart had been begging for a win, especially at a short track. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had started from the pole at Bristol two races earlier and led 225 laps before finishing fifth. He’d led 118 laps at Loudon and finished 10th and early in the season at Dover led 127 laps and finished fourth.

At the first Richmond race that season, Stewart started 30th and finished 15th.

On Sept. 11, Stewart started on the outside pole, his fifth front-row start of the season. On the pole was Mike Skinner, who earned six poles in his Sprint Cup career.

Also in the field was Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his fourth of five Cup starts that season.

Stewart and Skinner swapped the lead twice in the first four laps before Stewart took it over for the next 25.

Stewart’s JGR teammate, Bobby Labonte, would lead for three laps until Stewart took it back on Lap 33  and led for 138 laps.

The No. 20 would lead twice more. The last stretch began on Lap 257 when Stewart assumed the lead from Jeff Gordon, then just a one-time winner at RIR.

Gordon would drop out on Lap 311 with a transmission issue. Stewart would lead the final 144 laps.

With Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett on the call for ESPN, Stewart, at 28, claimed his first Sprint Cup win.

Stewart was the first first-time winner in Sprint Cup since Jeremy Mayfield at Pocono Raceway in June 1998. More importantly, he was the first rookie to win since Davey Allison at Dover International Speedway in 1987.

Finishing out the top five was Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Kenny Irwin Jr.

After emerging from his car, Stewart embraced crew chief Greg Zipadelli and Stewart’s fiance at the time, Krista Dwyer.

“I wish I knew what to say, I mean you plan all your life for something like this,” Stewart said. “This is the first time I’ve been speechless, everybody knows I like to talk. This is for Davey Allison, this is the mark I had to shoot for all year. Donnie Allison and his family have been great to me this year. I’m out of breath, that’s a lot of stuff to talk about after winning a race.”

The native of Columbus, Indiana, would win two more times in 1999, consecutive races at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart would also win twice more at RIR, the last victory coming in 2002.

On Saturday, in the Federated Auto Parts 400 on NBCSN, Stewart will make his 35th and final start at the .750-mile track.

“I’ve always felt like Richmond was the ultimate drivers’ track,” Stewart said in a press release. “When we didn’t have all the downforce like we do now, you used to literally move around the racetrack. You didn’t get stuck in one groove. You could be fast there running two or three different ways, using three different lines. You could do what you needed to do to complement your car or not hurt it. That’s what I have always liked about it. It’s always going to be my favorite track.”

NASCAR America: Is this the best Championship 4 ever?

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In the fifth year of the current format, the question being asked on Monday’s edition of NASCAR America is whether this is the greatest assembly of Championship 4 drivers of all times.

The answer is undeniably yes, according to the Dale Jarrett. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano constitute the best Championship 4 thus far.

“We could sit here and talk about how strong they are,” Dale Jarrett said. “We’ve talked about the Big 3 all year and who was going to be that fourth. Joey Logano showed strength as they got into the playoffs. But you don’t have to believe all that we are telling you. Just look at the numbers.”

It is a phrase repeated all too often, but in 2018 the numbers really do speak for themselves.

With his win last week at Phoenix, Busch tied Harvick with eight wins apiece, Truex earned four wins and Joey Logano scored two. With one race remaining, that totals 22 victories. The most previous to this season came last year when Truex, Busch, Harvick and Brad Keselowski combined for 18 wins including Truex’s Miami win.

The Championship 4 combined for 74 top fives. Last year, they had 62 top fives through the season finale in Miami.

“When we talk about the numbers, it is impressive,” Steve Letarte said. “Joey Logano has had a great year, but it has been dominated by three names. I would expect the race (at Miami) to be no different.”

“I think going into Miami, the big deal is they have all been there before,” Burton said. “Having been there; done that matters. The pressure of being in that situation? They’ve all experienced it.”

This will be the fourth appearance among the Championship 4 for Harvick (previously appeared in 2014, 2015 and 2017) and Busch (2015, 2016 and 2017). Truex (2015 and 2017) and Logano (2014 and 2016) have two appearances each.

The Big 3 have been together twice before (2017 and 2015).

2017: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski (combined for 18 wins, 62 top fives)

2016: Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards (15 wins, 53 top fives)

2015: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. (10 wins, 48 top fives)

2014: Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano (11 wins, 42 top fives)

For more, watch the videos above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Phoenix recap, Rodney Childers interview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and reviews all the action from over the weekend at ISM Raceway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Dale Jarrett from Stamford, Connecticut. Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte join them from the Charlotte Studio.

On today’s show:

  • We’ll recap Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix that set the Championship 4 in the Cup Series. We’ll hear from those drivers, including Phoenix winner Kyle Busch, who locked themselves into this weekend’s race for the title. We’ll also hear from those drivers who’ll have to wait until next year.
  • Kevin Harvick drove his way into the Championship 4 with a fifth-place finish at Phoenix. He did so without the services of crew chief Rodney Childers, who is serving a two-race suspension for last week’s violation at Texas. Marty Snider goes 1-on-1 with Childers to get his take on Harvick’s performance as well as the team’s preparations for Miami.
  • We’ll also recap Saturday’s Xfinity Series elimination race at Phoenix. Facing a must-win situation, Christopher Bell scored his seventh win of the year and, more importantly, advanced to the Championship.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Sage Advice: What Tony Stewart told Kurt Busch at Phoenix

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Tony Stewart has seen the picture taken of him and Kurt Busch near the end of Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway and wants to assure you it’s not what it looks like.

The picture shows the Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner and Busch talking closely on the No. 41 team’s pit wall shortly after Busch wrecked in the final playoff elimination race.

“It looks like he’s sobbing on my shoulder and I’m consoling him and that’s now what it was,” Stewart said Monday on Kevin Harvick‘s “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was a boss and his driver, and more so two friends, that are having a conversation saying, ‘Don’t let that one mistake and that one crash overshadow what you did today as a race car driver and what you’ve done all year,” Stewart said.

Busch, the 2004 champion, entered the elimination race three points behind Harvick for the final transfer spot to the Championship 4.

Busch led 52 laps before he was held a lap by NASCAR for passing the pace car as he entered the pits on Lap 136.

After he returned to the lead lap, Busch stayed out of the pits during a late caution.

When the race restarted with 44 laps to go, Busch was racing Denny Hamlin for the lead in Turn 2 when Hamlin got loose and pinned him against the wall, which caused a chain reaction that involved Chase Elliott. Busch finished 32nd.

“Those restarts were insane yesterday,” Stewart said. “Kurt couldn’t do anything about that. It was more just having the conversation with Kurt, ‘Don’t beat yourself up, don’t go to the media and blast NASCAR because you did make a mistake, it was your fault, not NASCAR’s fault.’

“‘You did everything you could do’ … he absolutely drove his ass off. Ran a great race, battled adversity after his mistake coming on pit road. Absolutely did everything perfect from that moment on. That’s what I wanted him to understand.”

Busch, who enters the season finale at Miami without having announced where he’ll race in 2019, praised Stewart, who he has competed for since 2014.

“He was just helping me out as a driver, owner,” Busch said. “That’s what Tony Stewart does. He’s a good individual that knows how to pat somebody on the back and create clarity from the outside on what went on because I only see what happens from the inside of the car.”

Xfinity Championship 4 made up of favorites and a surprise

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Unlike on the Cup side where there are no surprises, the Championship 4 in the Xfinity Series is not entirely what was expected when the playoffs started.

Justin Allgaier, who won the regular-season title, was eliminated at the end of the Round of 8. So was teammate Elliott Sadler, who had 24 top 10s in the first 32 races but no wins.

Rookie Christopher Bell got into the Championship 4 in walk-off fashion, winning Saturday at Phoenix after he entered the race 34 points below the final transfer spot.

Bell joins Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick in Saturday’s title race in Miami (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The drivers have an average age of 23 and have combined for nine wins since February, with Hemric the only winless among driver among them.

Here’s a look at each driver’s record ahead of Miami.

Christopher Bell (No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Seven, a rookie record (Richmond I, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Iowa II, Richmond II, Dover II and Phoenix II)

Career Playoff wins: Four (Including win at Kansas last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Earned a DNF in first Xfinity start last year for an engine failure. Best finish of second in three Truck Series starts. Won the Truck Series title in 2017. Has been in the Championship 4 in each of his three full-time seasons in NASCAR.

Outlook: Bell enters as the favorite with his series-leading seven wins. Despite two DNFs in the Round of 8, he has won three of the last six races. Toyota has won two of the last five Miami races.

“I don’t know if you can take any momentum (to Miami),” Bell said after his win Saturday.  “The 00 (Cole Custer), they’re licking their chops because they won by (15.4) seconds last year so I’m sure they’re feeling good. We saw with the Cup deal, Jimmie Johnson won his championship (in 2016) because a couple guys beat themselves and took each other out and he was just at the right spot at the right time and he was definitely not the best out of the four. What we’re going to have to do next week if we are the best car, try not to beat yourself and if we’re not the best car, just wait for the opportunity for that last pit stop and you never know when the last restart is going to come.”

 

Cole Custer (No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing)

Wins: One (Texas II)

Career Playoff wins: Two (Won Miami last year when he was not part of Championship 4)

Miami record: Two starts in Xfinity. Finishes of 17th and a win. Started second in 2017 and led 182 laps on way to his first career Xfinity win.

Outlook: Despite only one win through 32 races, Custer placed in the top 10 a series-leading 25 times this season. And as Christopher Bell noted, Custer won at Miami by just over 15 seconds last year.

“All of the cars at Stewart-Haas (Racing), we build fantastic cars,” Custer said Saturday. “I could take any single car out of our fleet and I could take this car this weekend (at Phoenix) and I think it would be just as good as the car we’re taking to Homestead. I think the tires are gonna be a little bit different. I think it’s a different left-side tire. We have the flange-fit bodies this year, so that’s a little bit different. You have to account for those things and make sure that you’re adjusting and making your car as good as it can be.”

 

Daniel Hemric (No. 21 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: None

Miami record: Finished 34th, 23 laps off the lead in 2017 due to an early mechanical problem. Three Truck Series starts with a best finish of fifth in 2016.

Outlook: For the second year in a row, Hemric enters the Championship 4 without a win to his name. Should he claim the title without winning in Miami he’d be the first driver to win a national NASCAR championship without having ever won a race.

Hemric leads the Championship 4 drivers in average finish (9.1). His five runner-up finishes without a win leads all winless drivers in Xfinity.

“You just hope you’re going to find yourself in position to have another shot at it like we did last year,” Hemric said after he finished second Saturday. “Now I can confidently say we do have that shot. It’s a tough situation to be in after the 10-point penalty we got after Kansas. It put you a little bit on edge and then we got into Texas and lost some points. We knew we had to come here (to Phoenix) today and be a solid as we could and give ourselves a shot to try to maximize our points as best we could and that’s what we did.

“… Having that taste in our mouth from having that taken away from us last year the way it was makes us that much more hungry when we go there next week.”

 

Tyler Reddick (No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports)

Wins: One (Daytona I)

Career Playoff wins: One (At Kentucky last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Started from pole and finished fourth in first Xfinity start last year. In three Truck Series starts finished sixth, third and second.

Outlook: Reddick admitted he would have been “surprised” had you told him nine weeks ago he would be the only JR Motorsports driver in the Championship 4.

Nine races ago he finished 34th in race No. 23 at Road America. By that point he had just one top-five finish since he won the season-opener at Daytona. In the nine races after Road America he earned four top fives, three top 10s and announced he’ll compete for Richard Childress Racing in 2019.

“I (knew we had) the potential to get to (Miami) all year long,” Reddick said after placing sixth at Phoenix. “I guess we’ve just been getting our bugs out this year. Our regular reason had moments of greatness but never really seized it. We’d have speed, but something would happen. … The playoffs have been more about what this team is really about. We’ve done everything we needed to. We’ve done a very good job of staying out of trouble and minimizing mistakes. But we’ve been lucky too.  … Sometimes it never hurts to just be a little lucky.”