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Smoke Stories: Friends, foes remember Tony Stewart

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A lot happened on Nov. 15, 1992.

Alan Kulwicki won his only Winston Cup title by 10 points over Bill Elliott, who won the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On the starting grid for the last time was Richard Petty, starting in his 1,184th Cup race, while a mustached kid named Jeff Gordon started his first.

Also on pit road was Tony Stewart, a 21-year-old sprint car driver from Columbus, Indiana, attending his first NASCAR race. Instead of a firesuit, he wore a $2,000 suit with a tie.

“I went from having a little bit of money from what I’d saved driving a race car to being a broke race car driver again, because I chose to try and impress people,” Stewart said. “I thought like I was wasting my time being down there, I thought there was no way I was going to get an opportunity to come do this.”

Twenty-four years later, the driver known as “Smoke” is ending an 18-year Sprint Cup career. Here are stories from some of the men Tony Stewart raced, fought and inspired.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL. - JULY 2: Team owner Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, celebrate winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Pepsi 400 on July 2, 2005 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. ( Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images )
Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs after winning the 2005 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

JOE GIBBS

In his Sprint Cup career, Stewart raced for two people. Joe Gibbs and himself.

Stewart caught the attention of Gibbs, a NASCAR owner since 1992, after two years of racing in the Xfinity and Indy Racing League, where he won the 1997 title for John Menard.

“A lot of people were talking about him,” says Gibbs. “He had a contract. So it was a long process of going through that, trying to work it out with the owners that had him at that point, then to work it out with him.”

When Gibbs sat down with Stewart for the first time, the driver known for his confidence and brashness had a “shocker” for the former NFL coach.

“He said, ‘I want to tell you something right now, I’m not ready for Cup … I want to run Xfinity for at least a year, maybe two years,'” Gibbs recalled. “I think he had a real strong feeling about himself. I think that’s one thing I remembered right off the bat, he said, ‘Hey, I’m not ready.'”

After another season of splitting time between Xfinity and the IRL, Stewart made the jump to Cup. Seven years after his trip to Atlanta, Stewart started the 1999 Daytona 500.

On Sept. 11, 1999, Stewart won his first of 49 Sprint Cup races at Richmond International Raceway.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 The Home Depot Toyota, speaks with teammate Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2008 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch prior to the 2008 Daytona 500. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

KYLE BUSCH

In his 10 Sprint Cup seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, 10 drivers had the distinction of calling Stewart a teammate for at least one race.

Kyle Busch was one of the last.

In 2008, Busch landed at JGR in the No. 18 that had been driven by Bobby Labonte and J.J. Yeley.

“Tony and I, when I first started Cup racing, didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye very well,” says Busch. “When we became teammates it was the best thing for us. We got a good chance to sit down talk to each other each and every week at our team meetings to understand one another. He was a huge part of the success at Joe Gibbs Racing that year and we got a good chance at learning each other’s personalities and seeing how similar we are.”

Busch’s favorite memory of being in the same stable as Stewart is their first race together in the Daytona 500. Stewart and Busch were leading on the final restart with three laps to go, attempting to fend off the Team Penske duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

“We stayed together and knew to work together and were on each other’s bumpers all day long and essentially that is probably what cost us the victory,” Busch said. “We didn’t want to vary from one another at all. I stayed with him and the outside blew our doors off at the end with Ryan Newman winning the race.”

In Stewart’s 49 Sprint Cup wins, four of them at Daytona, none were the Daytona 500.

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19, 2011 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart celebrates his 2011 win at Chicagoland Speedway, which kicked off his third and final Sprint Cup campaign. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Trevor Bayne

Stewart has a tendency to complain. Or at least exaggerate.

Prior to the start of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart famously said he was a waste of space in the playoff after not winning a race all season.

Stewart was still complaining right before the start of the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I always give him a hard time about this one specifically,” Trevor Bayne said. “We were on pit road with Leonard Wood, myself and Tony standing there talking. He is telling us how awful his race car is. He is going on and on, kind of like Sonoma earlier this year telling me how bad it is.

“Then he goes out and wins the race.”

Stewart would win four more races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to clinch his final Sprint Cup title in a historic duel with Carl Edwards.

MORE: Watch 2011 Homestead race tonight on NBCSN

Joey Logano

“California keeps coming to my mind,” Joey Logano says when asked for a favorite Stewart story. “That’s probably not the best memory.”

Logano and the rest of the Texas Motor Speedway media center break into laughter.

“At least we can laugh about it now,” Logano says.

The list of drivers who have been on the receiving end of Stewart’s wrath is long and distinguished.

Matt Kenseth at Bristol and Newman at Richmond are a couple. Logano joined them in 2013 at Auto Club Speedway when he violated Stewart’s No. 1 rule – don’t block.

A move by Logano on a late restart resulted in a pit road scuffle, a water bottle being thrown by Logano and a profanity laced TV interview by Stewart.

“If you were to say there’s one thing that makes Tony Stewart great, it’s the passion that he has, that he brings to the game,” says Logano, who succeeded Stewart in the JGR No. 20 in 2009.

Even with their disagreements, Logano has learned a lot in his nine years of competing against Stewart.

“He knows when to not beat up his car, he knows when to not make other drivers mad and when to just log some laps, and then he also knows that when it’s game time he becomes one of the most fierce competitors out there,” Logano said. “I think that’s kind of a cool trait that I’ve learned a lot from just following him and watching him.”

FADE OUT

Stewart’s 616th Sprint Cup start was shortened by rain.

After 293 laps in the AAA Texas 500, Stewart was 31st, five laps down and two races away from his NASCAR retirement.

Stewart walked from pit road into the garage and made a beeline for the gap between two haulers. Alone in the middle of the post-race chaos, watching Stewart walk away like a western anti-hero, stood a fan.

A stocky man with frizzy red hair, he wore a blue Chase Elliott shirt and an Elliott hat that sat crooked on his head.

“Thank you, Tony!” he called out.

Without slowing down, Stewart turned and waved before turning right and disappearing around the front of a hauler.

“That’s all I really wanted to see,” said the fan, to no one and everyone.

NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge to debut Monday

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Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the headliners in the NASCAR America presents the NBC eSports Short Track Challenge.

The week-long event begins at 7 p.m. ET on Monday on NBCSN.

From Monday-Wednesday, six different drivers will compete in two timed races in Cup Series cars at an iconic track at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The top two finishers from each night will advance to the championship race at the virtual Martinsville Speedway on NBCSN.

Monday night’s races will be at a virtual Rockingham Speedway

Tuesday night’s races will be at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

Wednesday night’s races will be at a virtual Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Thursday night’s championship race will be at a virtual Martinsville Speedway.

Here is the driver lineup for each night:

Monday at Rockingham Speedway: Kyle Busch, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace.

Tuesday at Lucas Oil Raceway: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Wednesday at Myrtle Beach Speedway: Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece and Myatt Snider.

“We’re proud to continue our successful collaboration with iRacing and NASCAR, which began last year, to produce the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge,” said Jeff Behnke, vice president, production, NASCAR on NBC and NBCSN. “Thanks to all the drivers from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series for joining in what should be four consecutive nights of entertainment and fun for all the great race fans and viewers.”

“Of all of the events we’ve been putting together for real-world pros, the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge should be one of the most fun,” said Steve Myers, iRacing executive producer. “So many of the top drivers in NASCAR have honed their skills on both local short tracks and iRacing, and combining the two for a virtual week-long showdown should deliver plenty of excitement. We can’t wait to see who takes the checkered flag and bragging rights!”

This marks the latest collaboration between NBC Sports and iRacing, which began in 2019 when NBC Sports telecast the first-ever eNASCAR live event on television. NBC Sports and iRacing teamed up to present the 2019 eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Championship in a two-hour event live on NBCSN last October. Earlier this year, it was announced that six races of the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Playoffs will air live on NBCSN later this fall.

NBC Sports NASCAR commentators Rick Allen and Steve Letarte will call the action, including interviews with drivers during the races. Jeff Burton and Marty Snider will host the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge via Zoom.

April 2 in NASCAR history: Dale Jr. gets first Cup win in Texas

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One day late in matching his father’s own achievement 21 years earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began etching his name in the history of the Cup Series on April 2, 2000 with his first career win.

The victory came at Texas Motor Speedway, the same track the third-generation driver earned his first Xfinity Series win at two years earlier.

Earnhardt led 106 of 334 laps and beat Jeff Burton to score the victory in just his 12th career start, four races sooner than his father’s first win in 1979. The victory also was the first for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the Cup Series.

“I’ll tell you what, that was the hardest race I’ve ever drove,” Earnhardt told CBS in Victory Lane. “Had the flu all day long, all week long, felt pretty good. Once the race started, we had a good race car and I was pretty happy.”

Earnhardt’s victory was the last time a Cup Series driver earned their first career win at Texas Motor Speedway.

Also on this date:

1967: Driving for the Wood Brothers, Cale Yarborough led 301 of 334 laps at Atlanta to earn his second Cup win and his first on a speedway.

1978: Darrell Waltrip beat John Utsman (relief driver for Benny Parsons) by one lap to earn his first of a record 12 career Cup wins at Bristol Motor Speedway.

1989: Harry Gant ended a 90-race winless streak with a dominant win at Darlington. He led 171 of the last 180 laps to beat Davey Allison and Geoff Bodine. The race was plagued by a 19-lap caution at one point in order to correct a scoring error that gave Gant a one-lap lead on the field.

1995: Jeff Gordon earns his first of four consecutive wins in the Food City 500 at Bristol. It was his third win in the first six races of the season, as Gordon would go on to claim his first Cup Series championship.

Kevin Harvick, Tony Kanaan discuss IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader

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Over a 22-year IndyCar career featuring its share of adversity, Tony Kanaan has learned to embrace trying to find the positives in a negative situation.

He believes NASCAR and IndyCar will find a tiny silver lining from the novel coronavirus pandemic. The series will race on the same day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course in a July 4 doubleheader, which he believes sends a message of unity he’d like to see from the world during this dark period.

“It’s time to send that message (of unity),” Kanaan told “Happy Hours” hosts Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum in a Wednesday afternoon interview on SiriusXM’s NASCAR Channel. “If we don’t come out of this situation as better people, globally, in every way, shape or form … it’s just being kind to people. Hopefully, we’ll be sending the right messages, doing radio shows together, doing live on Instagram together, doing races together.”

Click here to read the entire story on NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk page.

How NASCAR and racing community are helping in COVID-19 fight

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Given the emphasis on safety in racing, NASCAR and several other motorsports entities are increasingly pivoting to focus on safety in other areas to help out during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest emphasis is on personal protective equipment for health care workers as well as things such as respirators for those infected with coronavirus.

According to a report by The Associated Press, here are what several groups across NASCAR and other motorsports series are doing:

* NASCAR’s Research and Technology Center in Concord, North Carolina has shifted from building parts and working on the Next Gen car to producing face shields.

According to the AP report, NASCAR has a team of eight engineers volunteering their time to keep five 3D printers operating nearly 18 hours per day to produce protective face shields for health care workers. The largest printer is capable of producing three shields every 2 ½ hours.

“That’s the one we try to keep running almost nonstop,” Eric Jacuzzi, senior director of NASCAR’s aerodynamics and vehicle performance, told the AP. “You are sitting around watching the news and you think, ‘We just put this big, beautiful new machine in, let’s see what we can do and use it for something good.’”

NASCAR is donating all shields it produces to health care facilities and workers. It is also working with North Carolina State University as consultants to help hospitals with their own 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment, according to the AP report.

* Ford is embarking this week on a project to build as many as 50,000 ventilators in the next 100 days, according to the AP. The company has also lent a team of engineers and is providing facilities and equipment to help 3M build respirators.

Todd Hoevener, Ford Director of Technology, Strategy and Planning, told SiriusXM NASCAR on the “Happy Hours” program Wednesday afternoon, “This week we are ramping up to be able to ship one million (face shields) by the end of the week.”

* Chevrolet’s parent company, General Motors, is working with Ventic Life Systems to produce more than 50,000 face masks daily, as well as is ramping up production to build 10,000 ventilators per month, according to the AP.

* Toyota is also producing face shields and working to manufacturer ventilators, as well, according to the AP.

* NASCAR Cup driver Brad Keselowski’s company, Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, is using 3D printers and CNC machines to build face shields.

* Roush Fenway Racing has donated 1.5 cases of N95 masks to Lake Norman Regional Medical Center and donated shields and safety glasses elsewhere. The team told the AP it is producing aerosol boxes that “protect medical professionals as they treat COVID-19 patients.” In addition, parent company Roush Industries is working on developing other personal protective equipment.

* Hendrick Motorsports has redirected some of its manufacturing resources to produce face shields for healthcare workers. Other NASCAR teams that have donated masks or other supplies include Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and JR Motorsports.

* IMSA team CORE Autosport told the AP it has produced and sold several thousand face masks for health care professionals.

* Technique Inc., which produces chassis kits for NASCAR teams, has repurposed its Jackson, Michigan factory – just a few miles from Michigan International Speedway – and expects to increase production to 20,000 face shields by the end of this week, according to the AP.

* The largest team in NHRA drag racing, Don Schumacher Racing, is using its two 3D printers non-stop to build headbands that attach to face shields, the AP reported.

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