Smoke Speaks: The wit, wisdom and worldview of Tony Stewart through the years (Part Two)

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The second installment of our excerpts from the most memorable and revealing interviews with Tony Stewart covers the final eight years of his NASCAR career.

It was a period of immense professional growth for Stewart, who became a co-owner of a Sprint Cup team, brought a NASCAR national series race to a dirt track for the first time in 40 years and won a third championship.

But it also marked much personal tumult and tragedy for Stewart, who missed the last 18 races of 2013 with a broken right leg, three races in 2014 while grieving over the death of Kevin Ward Jr. and eight races in 2016 after breaking his back.

Here’s a sampling of Stewart interviews from 2008-2016 (click here for the first part of the series):

CHARLOTTE, Oct. 19, 2016

After a Mobil 1 appearance to help change the oil in his No. 14 hauler before it headed to Talladega, Stewart was in a reflective mood, sticking around to talk to reporters off the record for nearly as long as he took questions on wide-ranging subjects.

Q: Any plans to ride to the track in your team’s truck?

Stewart: “I used to do that. My very first trip with Harry Ranier’s team in ’96, I rode in the hauler all the way down to Daytona. I saved about $150 in gas money. As a rookie Busch Grand National driver, $150 was a lot of money to me.”

Q: Rick Hendrick recently said he offered you a Sprint Cup ride around that time. What’s your side of that story?

Stewart: “(It was offered) in the fall of ’96. I’d only ran eight Busch Grand National races with Harry, and I crashed out of two thirds of them, so I was fairly certain I wasn’t ready to jump in a Cup car quite yet. At that time, I was making all the decisions with my future. You’ve got one step to go (in NASCAR), the last thing you want to do is make that move too soon or not in the right deal. Obviously the Hendrick deal was the dream deal, but if I moved too soon or didn’t do a good job, the next thing you know you’re going back down the ladder, not up. So as hard as it was to make that decision to not do that, it may have worked out fine. We’ll never know. I felt like it was safer to make that decision and taking the time to make sure I felt I was ready before I went. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a move and have to worry about going backward.”

Q: Have you thought about life after this season?

Stewart: “I’ve got to get through five weeks and five days. Not that I’m counting. Once I get through that five weeks and five days, then I have plenty of time to think about the rest of my life. It’s really not a big change and big adjustment. I’ve got plenty of projects to keep me busy and that I stay active in anyway, so 90 percent of what I do won’t change, I just won’t be in a uniform driving a Cup car.”

Q: What is the emotion going to be like after the final race?

Stewart: “As soon as we get out of the car at Homestead, I’m going to ask if there’s an A main I can get a ride in that night at a dirt race. I’m very comfortable doing what I’m doing. I’m excited about what I’m going to do next year. If you retire and you’re not excited about it at the end of it, you’ve done something wrong. It’s proof I’m doing the right thing for me, and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.”

Q: What’s your greatest accomplishment?

Stewart: “I have no clue. I think it’s all a matter of opinion. To different people, it’s different things. What I might think, you might think different. I’m proud of everything we’ve done. There’s little races that nobody has ever heard of, and there might only been a 1,000 people in the grandstands that were some of my greatest accomplishments. People weren’t there to see it. Media didn’t see it, but I know in my heart that was a big deal. There’s a lot of those moments that have come in the last 38 years.

“If you ultimately had to pick one, it would be hard to beat 2011 at Homestead. To battle that much adversity through the whole day, and it started early in the race. It was a have-to-win scenario. To pull that off, for what was on the line for an individual win, that’s about as big as it gets.”

STEWART-HAAS RACING, Sept. 30, 2015

In a news conference at the team shop, Stewart announces his retirement after the 2016 season.

Stewart: “I think it’s more of a formality. I think you guys already know everything you need to know. But yeah, next year will be my last year in the Sprint Cup Series. It was a choice that was 100 percent mine. There wasn’t any pressure from anybody. If anything it was the opposite. I had more people trying to talk me out of it than anything. You know, I think it’s a scenario where everybody in their career at some point makes the decision that it’s time for a change and it’s nothing that you plan. I think it happens.  I think deep down you know when it’s time to do something to make a change like this.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet day. I’m excited about it, but at the same time I’m sad about it, as well. I love what I do with NASCAR, and I love what I do as a driver, and the great thing is I’m not going anywhere. NASCAR is probably going to be the most disappointed of everybody today because they aren’t getting rid of me. They have to deal with me as an owner.  There’s still the opportunity to get fined and there’s still the opportunity to be put on probation, just like always.”

Q: What has been the impact of the leg injury and the death of Kevin Ward Jr. on this decision?

Stewart: “Zero percent. This is strictly what I want to do, and my leg feels fine. The tragedy, nothing is going to change that.  It happened, but it’s not going to direct the rest of my life.  I’m still going to go race when I want to go race, but as far as the Cup Series, it had no bearing on that.”

Q: Do you have any regrets?

Stewart: “I think everything that’s happened in my life has happened for a reason. I think there’s things that I would like to have skipped in my life and things that have not happen, 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.”

ELDORA SPEEDWAY July 23, 2014

In the Camping World Truck Series’ second visit to his dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio, Stewart spent the weekend singing the praises of slinging dirt while lobbying for more NASCAR races – particularly during an animated postrace session.

Q: What was your view of the battle between Bubba Wallace Jr. and Kyle Larson?

Stewart: “I’m going to sum this up really short and really easy. If you didn’t like that race, you don’t know what racing is all about. Because when you have a half-mile dirt track and have trucks legitimately four wide and three wide for a bunch of the race, we don’t even have that at any of our big races (in Sprint Cup), that four-wide and three-wide action. As good as it was last year, this definitely topped it.”

Q: Are you thinking about how to top this and bring more NASCAR events here?

Stewart: “Absolutely. I think my brain thinks in circles and squares and this is a lot bigger than that. Last year far exceeded my expectations and I left here going, ‘Now what are we going to do? How are we going to beat that?’ In my mind, we far beat last year by a mile and knocked it out of the park. So now I’ll leave here going, ‘What are we going to do?’ That’s the benefit of having someone like (Eldora general manager) Roger (Slack) on staff that worked under one of the greatest promoters of all time in Humpy Wheeler. To bring in someone like Roger who thinks outside the box, there is no one else that could have handled it the day I made phone call and said there’s a possibility I could run a truck race here. Most of them would have passed out on the phone. Roger never batted an eye and knew exactly what he was going to do.

“I get to look good and be the one everyone pats on the back. I do the least amount of work of anybody around here. He does the most and probably gets the least amount of credit for it. I just have good people. I’ve been lucky my whole life being surrounded by good people. Being able to put it all together. There’s no dirt track in the country that’s ever pulled anything like this off.”

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Feb. 20, 2013

 After six hours of running through a bevy of commercial shoots, sponsor appearances and autograph signings, Stewart spared a few introspective moments in his motorhome before dinner.

Q: Many of your sponsors are engaging in social media campaigns. When will you join Twitter?

Stewart: Why are you looking at me? Look at him (points at PR rep Mike Arning). He’s the holdup on it. (Arning: He can. I’ve let him know it’s a commitment. You can’t just start and quit it). Yes I can! I don’t know I want to be as diehard as some of these people. I might dabble in it a little bit.

“The reason I don’t is I’m scared of saying something that may get taken the wrong way. I already deal with enough of that crap as it is. Do I want to subject myself to one more thing that can be that way? Everyone wants more access, but as soon as you get the access to us, and we do something wrong, you’re setting yourself up to get shot down. It’s hard because people want us to be genuine, but then when you’ve got the (jerks), it’s like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Eventually, you get pissed off at somebody and say, ‘All right, I’ve had enough of this,’ because of it.”

Q: On a day heavy with PR and sponsor commitments, do you even look at the schedule of obligations and responsibilities?

Stewart: It doesn’t matter whether I look at it or not, Mike’s going to make me do what I want anyway. That’s the reality of it. There are some things I can absolutely throw a fit about, and I’m still going to have to do it because he’s told me. In a lot of ways, I work for him on weekends. He’s getting the stuff done that needs to get done. And the thing is we work with each other long enough, he doesn’t come to me with stuff that doesn’t make sense.”

Q: But in the last four years as a car owner, you’ve noticed the schedule has gotten more harried?

Stewart: “Oh God, yes. There’s no doubt.”

Q: But it’s worth it?

Stewart: “Next question.”

Q: Most days, it’s worth it?

Stewart: “There are some days you go, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And there’s some days it’s, ‘Yeah, there’s no doubt why I’m doing this.’ It’s no different than anything else in anybody else’s life. Doesn’t matter how simple or complex your life is. There are days you hate it and days you love it.”

Q: On balance, life is good, though?

Stewart: “Yeah. I drive a race car for a living. My car owner lets me go race as many sprint car races as I want to go run. Mike’s the thorn in my ass. Life’s good.”

Q: As you enter the 15th year of trying to win Daytona, has it become the Holy Grail the way winning Indianapolis was?

Stewart: “Oh yeah. It’s the biggest race of my year. Yeah. It’s still never going to take Indy’s place because of where I’ve grown up. But as far as my career right now, that’s it now. There’s always going to be a blank spot at the top of the page no matter if I win this race or not. There’s always going to be one blank spot above this for the Indy 500 that may or may never get filled. It’s the top goal every year.”

Q: Are those blanks spots here and Indy something you think about it?

Stewart: “Oh yeah, every year when May comes around you’re thinking about, ‘What if?’ That’s been consistent for every year that I haven’t run it. It’s always been the same. That doesn’t change. The degree of that doesn’t change. You always still want to go back and do it. You still want to win that race. The hard part about the Daytona 500 is that’s all you think about once Homestead is over. Which makes sense, that’s what you should be thinking about is wining the biggest race of the year. The hard part is it’s the first race of the year, and if you don’t win it, you can’t go back. You can win the next five races, and it doesn’t take the place of winning the Daytona 500. You have to wait 365 days. That’s the hard part. You’ve got the whole rest of the year. It’s not like we’ve got the winter to start, and we’ll work toward that again. You missed it, and now you’ve got to run the rest of the year. Then you’ve got an offseason, then you get to drive. It’s a hard way to wait to have an opportunity to win the biggest race of the year. That’s the hard part. If you don’t get it done, you can’t go the next week and fix it. You can try to win another race, but you can’t try to win the Daytona 500.”

Q: If you had one race left to run in your career, where would it be?

Stewart: “The hard part is knowing it’s going to be the last race. That would be the hard part. The thing is if someone just said you got one more race you can run. By the time you get to the last race, most of those options are gone. That’s why it’s the last race anyway. It’s injury or age or whatever it is. Oh, man.”

Q: But if it could be up to you, though, and you could choose wherever?

Stewart: Winning or just running it?

Q: Just running it.

Stewart: Believe it or not, it wouldn’t be Indy or Daytona. Just running your last race, that’s not the way you’d do it. I’m trying to think where I’ve had the most fun racing, and that’s where I’d want to run my last race is someplace I had fun doing it. (Sighs, long pause) What makes that hard is that it’s not just stock-car racing. It’s not just IndyCar racing. It’s sports car racing, sprint car racing. (Long pause) I honestly don’t know. It’s much harder than people think. Because I’ve got a lot more variables than most people do. Most of these guys are thinking of 38 races at 20 tracks or whatever.

Q: Would it be easier if the choice was winning your last race?

Stewart: “If it came down to winning it, it’d be the Knoxville Nationals. If I knew the last race I was going to run, I was going to win. Well, at that point, it’d be the Indy 500. Second would be the Daytona 500. Third would be the Knoxville Nationals.

STEWART-HAAS RACING, Nov. 13, 2013

 In some of his first public comments since breaking his leg in a sprint-car crash, Stewart greets a small group of reporters at his team’s shop.

Q: How bad has the rehabilitation been?

Stewart: “It’s definitely not easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. The worst part of it is the last 20 minutes and that is when I am laying on my stomach and they are digging into the leg trying to break the scar tissue up and loosen everything that’s been reconstructed. You sit there with your face buried in a pillow trying to not remember all the four letter words you’ve been taught over the years.”

Q: How much has this made you appreciate being active?

Stewart: “I have a huge appreciation for just daily things that I can’t do now.  It’s like I have to plan, I have to think about stuff.  Before I get to the end of the hallway I make sure I have everything I need before I go down that flight of steps.” It’s like if you forgot something, no big deal you run back up and get it and not think twice about it.  Now, I have to still think about everything I need to go out of the house.  I don’t want to have to go back and make another trip.”

Q: The team is adding a fourth car. What’s it been like for vice president Greg Zipadelli to add staff for Kurt Busch and also fill out the new team for Kevin Harvick?

Stewart: “I’m the one that gets the phone call when he’s mad about something or he’s had a bad day. That is my role here.  He can call and yell at me anytime he wants. He yells at me a lot more than I’m allowed to yell at him.”

Q: Do you have input in the hiring?

Stewart: “Not really. I trust (Zipadelli’s) judgment. If he’s hired somebody, he’s much more qualified to know why they should be considered for that position than I am.  Having that confidence comes from our relationship in the past. If he says it’s right, then it’s right. We’ve had guys here in the shop that I loved and he said we’ve got to let them go. I don’t second guess anything he says whether to hire somebody or fire somebody. He knows what the goal is and he knows what the objectives are, and he knows what we’re trying to accomplish, and he knows what the plan is, and he’s the guy that has to execute.  That’s a lot of pressure on him as well.”

Q: What will you do during the off-season?

Stewart: “Therapy.  Be a therapist for Zippy. It’s going to be a hard winter and the hardest winter he’s ever had for a long time. There is just so much that has to happen. Unfairly, it shouldn’t be on one person and it’s not, it’s on the organization. We are all one unit and that’s why I’m going to be down here with him.  We’re going to win as a team and lose as a team. Whether I do anything other than walk around and smile and keep everybody upbeat and joke around with the guys, smack them on the back of the leg with the cane if I’m still on it. That’s part of being a car owner. You have to be a cheerleader too.”

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 30, 2012

After his speech at the NASCAR Awards Ceremony, Stewart mulls the passing of the torch.

Q: Will Brad Keselowski need to tone things down as champion?

Stewart: “I don’t think Brad’s learned to be cautious yet. Hopefully that won’t bite him like it has a lot of drivers in the past. It’s refreshing. It’s nice to see somebody who just speaks from the heart and isn’t guarded, and that’s the way all of us should be.”

Q: Are you going to miss the news media in the offseason?

Stewart: “Oh God, no. As much as I like to battle with you guys during the season, there’s a lot of time when we don’t have mics and cameras on that we talk about different things other than racing, and I will miss that.”

Q; Late NASCAR exec Jim Hunter had to help you through some tough moments. Brad’s been able to be himself and hasn’t needed a Jim Hunter to help. Is that a sign things are going in the right direction?

Stewart: “To be perfectly honest, I hope that you guys continue to treat (Keselowski) the way that you are now. That gives him that opportunity to be that way. I think that’s what the fans want to hear. But I’m so scared that at some point, somebody is going to turn on him, and it goes downhill from there. I hope you guys keep doing what you’re doing. I’m proud to see you guys give him a chance to be open like he is. I think it’s great for our sport. I think the sponsors and fans really enjoy that.”

Q: I know you feel people get burned by speaking their mind.

Stewart: “They do. History has proven that.”

CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, Sept. 18, 2012

A few days after his infamous “goosing” of DeLana Harvick is caught on national TV during the prerace of the Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart had a previously scheduled media appearance.

Q: Do you plan to do that every week?

Stewart: “This is old news. I guess it’s just the first time the cameras caught us, but we’ve been doing that since I was driving the Nationwide car with them. We’ve always joked around and horsed around like that. It just seems like this week when it got caught on camera it was a lot bigger deal for some reason. I didn’t even know anybody saw it. It wasn’t something that was out of the normal for us. Kevin comes up and gets me. I get Delana. DeLana gets both of us. We’re always just messing around, I guess. Not necessarily at the same time. I drove for them for a long time and have a great friendship with them. It always makes her jump, so it’s just something we’ve always joked around about and talked about it being good luck. It’s normally good luck for us. I’m just glad picking my nose wasn’t what is good luck.

“Anything I do gets that attention, which still amazes me. So I guess it’s a compliment.”

Q: Is it a compliment that probably nobody else would get away with it but you?

Stewart: “It’s good for me at least. It’s not really that big a deal. Why even this whole group (of reporters) is talking about it is amazing to me, because you guys are kind of the upper echelon, and we’re talking about something that isn’t a big deal.”

Q: But it’s been on national news programs.

Stewart: “See, you guys should be looking for the next great bigger, better thing than that. So basically you’re saying you guys aren’t as good as you think you are, and you’re following suit with what everybody else is doing.”

Q: The stories about it got more traffic than Brad Keselowski winning the race, though.

Stewart: “That’s pathetic. I think it’s pathetic because there is so much more stuff going on in our sport than that.”

Q: Have you ever gotten smacked in return?

Stewart: “No. I never grab anybody that I thought would smack me. I’m not going to grab somebody that I would offend, because they know that I’m not doing it in any more than a playful way.”

Q: Do you hear sponsors say you’re different than the public image they’d expected?

Stewart: “A lot of times they’re surprised there is more to us than just being a race car driver. I don’t have a business degree, and I’m not the best guy on the business side, but I do understand it a little bit. I’m not sitting there with my hand out saying write us a check. I understand there’s a goal they’re wanting, too, and we all sit down to figure out how to accomplish that together. It’s more than just me being a driver and somebody they see on TV.”

LAS VEGAS, Dec. 1, 2011

Stewart meets the media on the eve of his being crowned champion after beating Carl Edwards in his last race with crew chief Darian Grubb, who was fired.

Q: Have you been impressed with how Carl Edwards handled finishing second to you?

Stewart: “Yes, absolutely. He handled it with a lot more class than I would have been able. That’s just differences in personality. It doesn’t mean that I would have been a poor loser, but I think he handled as good if not better than anyone else would have handled that.”

Q: Darian said it’s been hard to look at you this week; are you feeling the same way?

Stewart:  “Well, when we started this organization together, we worked hand in hand to build it together. Like I told him, if it wasn’t emotional, it means it didn’t mean anything. It shows what it means to both of us.

Q: Do you have an understanding of why you appeal to fans?

Stewart: It’s my devilish good looks, there’s no doubt. It’s the only good trait that I have.

Q: Why do you think people are calling you ‘The People’s Champion,’ though?

Stewart: “I’m pretty normal. And I think everyone knows that. I’m a jeans, tennis shoes, T-shirt guy. I always have been. I always will be. I can just about listen to anybody’s story and find something that is a parallel to it in my life on my way up to getting to this level. I didn’t just start here. I worked jobs I didn’t like. I had to do a lot of things and sacrifice a lot of things to get where we are. I can relate to people who have to sacrifice every day to do what they do.”

Q: What was it like to receive a call from President Obama on Air Force One?

Stewart: “I was most concerned about not being able to understand him on the phone, but they’ve got really good cell service up there, so … it was a huge honor obviously. To hear him talk about the race, and he was paying attention to the race, and that really means a lot to the sport and for NASCAR. It’s cool to know that our Commander in Chief is engaged in what we’re doing.”

Q: A pinch-me moment?

Stewart: “Yeah, I kept holding my breath trying to make sure I wasn’t going to miss anything, and I about passed out by the end of the conversation. It was a short conversation, but it meant a lot.”

CHARLOTTE, N.C., MAY 12, 2011

In an appearance at Levine Children’s Hospital with Rick Hendrick, Stewart donates $50,000 in the team owner’s name.

“A lot of times I feel embarrassed with myself. Because you realize how hard these kids are fighting to get healthy. We’re all leaving here happy and healthy. We all have jobs. We don’t have a care in the world compared to these children and families. That’s very, very hard. It’s very humbling. I told Rick it’s amazing the comparison to listening to the staff of doctors talking about trying to find the best person, and it’s no different than what Rick does with his race teams. He tries to find the best personnel, best equipment, best resources. It’s just amazing how you wouldn’t think a children’s hospital and race team have similarities, but there are a lot more than your realize.”

Q: You and Rick seem to have an easygoing rapport.

Stewart: “That just shows you what kind of relationship we’ve got with each other. There’s hardly a conversation we have where we’re not laughing and joking about something. I don’t know if he’s that way with all of his drivers, but I know that’s something I appreciate with him. He’ll call and just give me grief. Doesn’t even have anything he wants to talk about. He’ll just call and give me a bunch of crap. It just makes you laugh. It’s fun.”

Q: Is it more like brothers or a father-son relationship?

Stewart: “A lot of the conversations are like a father-son-type conversation. My father and I give each other a hard time like Rick and I do. For what we do together and how business-oriented our relationship is, we find a way to make it fun and talk about stuff outside racing, too.”

STEWART-HAAS RACING, OCT. 12, 2010

After announcing the extension of his deal with Mobil 1, Stewart held a session for a small group of reporters, and the discussion focused on contracts and  sponsorship.

Q: Is it as competitive for sponsorship off track as sponsors on the track?

Stewart: “I don’t know if this is customary, but I realized how competitive it was when we get letters from our sponsors that were sending responses they’d sent to Roush after Roush had solicited them and said we can do a better job. Why are they soliciting our sponsors? That was a pretty good lesson. We’ve got contracts, and we’ve got Roush trying to take our sponsors away. That was a good lesson this is as competitive off the track as it is on.”

Q: Do you worry about money and sponsorship?

Stewart: “Who doesn’t? The hard part is every day when one of these guys walks by, I’m responsible for that guy, his family, his children. Yeah, you think about it. If I screwed up and don’t do my part to secure the finances, it’s going to affect those guys. It’s hard to imagine.”

Q: Can you cut a better deal because you can be flexible on salary as a driver-owner?

Stewart: “I don’t know which side is cutting a better deal is the hard part. Don’t know if I get a better deal as a driver or car owner. That’s part of the equation. I’ve heard a lot of owners talk about it in the owner meeting. I’m sitting with my owner hat on, listening to owners talk about it and you think about it from that other side, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, how many guys are going to take a pay cut?’ There are guys who have. That’s a good thing. There’s guys who didn’t have to but did. Instead of thinking backward, I’m thinking forward saying we’ve got to keep beating the streets and get these spots sold.”

Q: As an owner, how do you manage also paying yourself as a driver?

Stewart: “It’s based off my salary and percentage at Gibbs vs. what we knew other drivers were getting. I’m responsible for making our finances work. Our salary and percentage is right in line with guys who won races and championship. I didn’t pay myself a huge salary and percentage and put the company at risk. We did the original owner’s agreement and knew we’d sign two separate agreements as a driver and owner. We dealt with those independently. We didn’t go into the driver side trying to gouge anybody. I wasn’t unhappy with what I was making at Gibbs. My salary was less than guys that hadn’t even won a championship. We adjusted it and didn’t go crazy but moved it fair with the market. But we’re not making Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. money, but we’re in line with a lot of the top 10 guys.”

Q: Now that you have two full seasons under your belt, where do you see yourself as a driver and owner in five year?

Stewart:  Five years ago, I never saw myself as a team owner, let alone be two years into it. Who knows how long I’ll do this? A lot of it is ‘Are you competitive? Are you healthy?’ I don’t feel I’m off my game any. Whatever day I decide to stop driving, I want to be part of this organization. No disrespect, but there are owners in this sports that are starting to get up there in age. I have a partner who I believe wants to be here a long time, and I want to be here a long time. I love the sport. I like what I do. I just don’t necessarily like all the things that go along with it all the time.”

ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY, SEPT. 5, 2009

Stewart explains how he played consigliere to Danica Patrick, who was weighing a switch to stock cars.

Q: Danica Patrick said she has consulted you about NASCAR; what are your impressions of her interest?

Stewart: “We’re just trying to help her. She’s really come to us for a lot of advice about what to do. A lot of that is because she understands that I went through the same things that she went through. We’ve known each other through different personal service deals that we both had. Some shows we’ve done together when we’ve had time to sit and talk. We just seem to get along really well. I know she’s talked to a lot of teams in NASCAR right now, and she’s trying to figure out what it is she wants to do and how to go about it. So we got her down there and tried to give her an example of where her seats needed to be and went through that process and just spent time while she was in town answering her questions. Not so much us asking questions as she’s asking our opinion. I’m glad I can be here to have somebody for her to bounce ideas off. I think it’d be awesome for our sport if she could come over here and be successful.”

Q: Is she serious about this?

Stewart: “I know that she’s serious about it. She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is what I want to do. It looks like fun. It looks like a lot of work, but it looks like fun.’ I don’t think she has some misguided idea that it’s going to be easy. She wants to do it the right way. She has intentions of doing everything right. She asked a lot of very smart questions in the discussion about it. You can tell she wants to do it the right way. She understands how hard everybody has worked to get to this level, and she doesn’t want to be one of those people who comes in and gets stuff handed to her. She wants to earn her way and work her way up like everyone else has.”

Q: Should NASCAR look at adding push to pass like in IndyCar?

Stewart: “God I hope not. If I want to play a video game, I’ll go back to the bus.”

CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY, JULY 10, 2008

At the news conference to announce his new co-ownership with Gene Haas, Stewart naturally took several questions about the team he was leaving at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Q: Could you have bought into Joe Gibbs Racing instead?
Stewart: “It wasn’t offered. JGR is a family business. I respect that. You can’t ask a family business to give away part of the team. That didn’t turn me away from Joe Gibbs Racing. This was just a unique offer.”

Q: How much does it weigh on your decision to make this part of your legacy?

Stewart: “I think as time has gone on and you get older, you start realizing the importance of history and what values are important. The thought of being another Richard Childress or Richard Petty or someone who has driven in this sport, and now their legacy is bigger than when they were drivers. That opportunity was very important to me. I look back and I know I keep mentioning open wheel teams, but that’s where the foundation started. I look at (Tony Stewart Racing) this past week leading all three national divisions, and that’s the first time in USAC history one team has led all three national divisions, and I thought that was something that’s never been done. To be part of that and have my name on that organization is something I’m proud of, and to have opportunities to put my name in the record books as a car owner is something I’m excited about.”

Q: Why can you be successful as a team owner?

Stewart: “I can’t guarantee I’m (going to succeed), but if we don’t, we’re going to go down swinging. I like challenges. If I didn’t like challenges, I wouldn’t be part of three racetracks and have four races teams. There are no guarantees it’ll be successful. After evaluating the potential, I wouldn’t be involved if it didn’t have potential to be great. There are no guarantees. We’ll do everything to make it successful.”

Q: Would you consider owning an IndyCar team?

Stewart: “First, you’re smoking crack today. No, I’ve been down that road. I guess I’ve learned never say never. Because eight years ago, I said I’d never be an owner in NASCAR, and here I am today announcing I am. You never know. You look at Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing who are involved in multiple series. Is it out of the question? No, it’s never out of the question. We evaluate where we’re at as time goes on and do we have too much on our plate, and do we want more? We’ll see down the road what we want to do next. We might buy a Little League baseball team.”

Q: Are you seeking advice from other driver-owners?

Stewart: “I’ve had conversations with Robby Gordon, who really is the last owner-driver in the series right now. The moral of the story is he said you’re going to enjoy this. If Robby had said this was going to be a total disaster and you’ll regret it, I’d have thought different, but that’s far from what he said.”

Q: How emotional is it to leave crew chief Greg Zipadelli after this season?

Stewart: “That’s been the single hardest part about this. It’s like a marriage. He’s been there professionally and like a big brother on the personal side. For the last 10 years, I’ve had Greg’s leadership and security blanket and peace of mind that Zippy is in charge of his. He knows me better than 99 percent of girlfriends in my life. I’m not going to call it a divorce  because it’s not like that. Our relationship is as good as it’s ever been. Yesterday was bittersweet to sit down with our guys and let them know that this combination that won over 30 races and two championships would part ways. The important thing is not only Zippy but the entire organization parted on great terms.”

NBC Sports Power Rankings: What were best NASCAR teams overall in 2019?

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As NASCAR Talk continues its post-season Power Rankings, here are the 10 teams we feel performed the best throughout the entire season across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

We made our picks based using a number of variables including which drivers work the best with their crew chiefs, which teams have the strongest pit crews, how a team was run, and assorted other elements that often spell the difference between success and lack thereof.

Note that we are selecting the best TEAMS, not necessarily the best organizations overall. But as you will soon find out, several of those best teams also came from within the same organization, as well.

Here’s how we picked them:

1. Kyle Busch and No. 18 Cup team (30 points): Sure, this team slumped a bit in the second half of the season, going winless in 21 of the final 22 races (although they still were able to win the regular season championship), but when everything was on the line in the championship-deciding race at Miami, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens proved why they are the best … and why they are the champions.

2. Martin Truex Jr. and No. 19 Cup team (27 points): From an overall consistency standpoint, there are few teams like the one spearheaded by Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn. Truex won the championship in 2017 and finished second in 2018 and 2019. The No. 19 also had a combined 19 wins in those three seasons. No other team matched that kind of performance (although Busch came close with 18 wins and finishes of 2nd, 4th and 1st during that same period). Truex will have a new crew chief in 2020 after Pearn unexpectedly announced he was leaving his position with Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday.

3. Kevin Harvick and No. 4 Cup team (23 points): Even though most other teams would welcome the opportunity to have the kind of performance the No. 4 team has enjoyed, the No. 4 team is seemingly stuck in a loop of sorts. Even though Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have a team that has won 14 races in the last three seasons and have one of the best pit crews in the business, they’ve finished third in each of those last three seasons. This is a team that has made a few mistakes over that same time period, and it can be argued that may be one of the reasons why it finished third so frequently.

4. Denny Hamlin and No. 11 Cup team (22 points): The combination of Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart together for the first time in 2019 paid big dividends, particularly with six wins (including the Daytona 500). Not only was that the second-most number of wins in a single season for Hamlin – and the most races he’s won in a decade – but also was a big bounceback after Hamlin failed to win even one race in 2018 with former crew chief Mike Wheeler. Sadly, the season did not end the way Hamlin and company had hoped. And given he is now 39 years old, it may very well have been the last strong bid Hamlin will have to win that elusive Cup championship.

5. Christopher Bell and No. 20 Xfinity team (15 points): There’s domination, then there’s what this team did from 2018-19. No titles, but 15 wins, 38 top fives and 41 top 10s in 66 races. Bell now advances to the Cup Series for 2020 and he’s taking crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him, which is a no-brainer.

(tie) 6. Chase Elliott and No. 9 Cup team (7 points): Valiant comeback to advance past the second round was wasted when everything went wrong in the next round. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have become a strong team, winning a combined six races in the last two years, but there is still the issue of performing well under pressure. Elliott appeared a lock to advance to the Championship 4 round until he reached the third round and finished 36th, 32nd and 39th, ending his title hopes with a definitive thud.

(tie) 6. Ross Chastain and No. 45 Truck team (7 points): A team that opened the season not planning to run a full season with one driver, switched to a championship hunt after eight races, bounced back from having a win disqualified to win the next race and made it to the Championship 4.

(tie) 6. Cole Custer and No. 00 Xfinity team (7 points): Upgraded at crew chief with Mike Shiplett and went from a one-win-per-season team for the previous two seasons to finishing with seven wins in 2019, one less win than Christopher Bell. Not surprisingly, Custer and Shiplett will remain together when Custer jumps to the Cup series and the No. 41 in 2020.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano and No. 22 Cup team (6 points): It was a similar season to 2018 for Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon in 2019, but the end results were diametrically opposite. Whereas Logano went from underdog to champ in 2018, he fell short of running for a second career title in 2019, ultimately finishing fifth in the standings. Still, this duo works very well together. One thing that needs to be looked at if Logano wants to improve in 2020 is to cut down on the number of mistakes both he and his pit crew make.

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick and No. 2 Xfinity team (6 points): This was an outstanding season for Reddick despite some challenges. Not only did Reddick move to Richard Childress Racing after he won the 2018 Xfinity championship for JR Motorsports, Reddick and crew chief Randall Burnett worked seamlessly throughout the season, winning five times and failing to finish in the top 10 just six times in 33 races. No surprise, they’ll stay together when Reddick drives the No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing in 2020, with Burnett going with him.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski and No. 2 Cup team (5 points), Austin Hill and No. 16 Truck team (5 points), Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Truck team (2 points), Kyle Larson and No. 42 Cup team (3 points) and Ryan Newman and No. 6 Cup team (1 point).

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Justin Bonnett out of ICU, faces more surgery after fiery Snowflake wreck

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Justin Bonnett faces a long road to recovery from Saturday night’s fiery wreck in the Snowflake 100 Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

After being in intensive care for more than 48 hours, the grandson of late NASCAR star Neil Bonnett is out of ICU, has been taken off oxygen and is breathing on his own, but also faces additional surgeries, including two more on Wednesday, according to a post on his team’s Facebook page.

“Justin has been moved from ICU and into a regular room. He is now off oxygen and breathing well on his own. Justin is currently scheduled to undergo two surgeries tomorrow (Wednesday) to place rods in his left leg and a procedure to tend to his burns. The family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, concerns and messages. The love and support shown for Justin in this difficult time has been nothing short of phenomenal. Justin says, “It is truly an honor to have all of the support. Thanks everyone for everything.”

The 26-year-old Bonnett was seriously injured in a wreck in Saturday’s final qualifying race for the annual Snowball Derby. Bonnett had nowhere to go when the car of fellow competitor Jarrett Parker spun in front of him, leading to contact between the two cars. The impact ruptured the fuel cell on Parker’s car, sending flames and burning fuel across the racetrack, including enveloping Bonnett’s race car.

He suffered a broken fibula and tibula in his leg and burns to his face, hands and neck. After initial treatment at a Pensacola hospital, Bonnett was airlifted to a larger hospital in Mobile, Alabama that was better equipped to treat the significant trauma he had experienced.

A post of gratitude from Bonnett’s family on his Facebook page thanked supporters for their concern and prayers for a speedy recovery for the Hueytown, Alabama native.

“Thank you to the Melvin family for starting this Go Fund Me page for Justin. Justin will have medical bills after his lengthy stay in the hospital and will be out of work for some time, as he has a long road of recovery ahead. He is the sole provider for his family and 10 month old daughter. Together we can make sure he does not battle financial stress while recovering. Thank you for the prayers, encouragement, and any contribution you can make!”

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Bonnett and his family. As of 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, more than $4,700 of the $10,000 goal has been raised.

Here is the post on the GoFundMe page:

“Justin sustained serious injuries during the Snowflake race at 5 Flags Speedway December 7, 2019. He received burns on his arm, neck, mouth, and hands. He also had a compound fracture of his leg that has already had one surgery and will have another Wednesday the 11th. Justin is the sole provider for his family and will be unable to work for quite sometime. In addition he is hospitalized 4 hours from home. Justin, Taylor and their sweet baby Brynlee could use all the help we can give them. No amount is too small. It all adds up!”

To contribute to Justin Bonnett’s GoFundMe account, click here.

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Ty Majeski to race full-time for Niece Motorsports in Truck Series

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Ty Majeski will compete full-time for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2020, the team announced Tuesday.

Majeski, a former Roush Fenway Racing development driver, will pilot the No. 45 Chevrolet that Ross Chastain drove to an appearance in the Championship 4 this year. Chastain will compete full-time for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Majeski, 25, made one start for Niece Motorsports last year, making his Truck Series debut in the playoff race at ISM Raceway. He finished 11th.

The team confirmed to NBC Sports that crew chief Phil Gould will return to the team.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to race full time with Niece Motorsports,” Majeski said in a press release.  “I’m appreciative of (owner) Al (Niece) and everyone at the team for giving me this opportunity.  We’re looking to continue to build on what Ross and the team accomplished this year.  We expect to be contending for wins and ultimately the championship.”

“Last season was really a dream come true for me and this team,” said Niece in the press release.  “No one expected us to be contending for a championship in Homestead – but there we were. We’re confident that we can do the same next season. Ty is clearly extremely talented – he’s won in everything he’s driven.  I’m excited to have him join the team full time.  We’re looking forward to great things in 2020.”

After competing part-time for Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2018, Majeski made six starts in the ARCA Menards Series this year, winning three times and finishing in the top five in the other three races. The 25-year-old native of Seymour, Wisconsin, also earned four wins on the ARCA Midwest Tour.

Majeski’s news comes the day after his attempt to win the Snowball Derby came up short.

The rest of Niece Motorsports’ driver lineup will be announced at a later date. The team did not include in sponsor info in their announcement.

 

Joey Logano: Next Gen car will put car ‘more in the driver’s hands’

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In the midst of a two-day test of the Cup Series’ Next Gen car at ISM Raceway, Team Penske driver Joey Logano provided some insight into the car Cup teams are scheduled to begin racing in 2021.

Logano is the second Cup driver to test the car after Austin Dillon did so in October at Richmond Raceway.

“We’re trying things on different extremes – a lot of downforce, and then little downforce and then figure out what’s going to make the best racing,” Logano said in a media release. “Then you go from there to make the next step, bring some more cars. We’re still in the preliminary stages, but we definitely have some cool pieces to the car.”

Compared to what he races now in the Cup Series, Logano said a major difference in the Next Gen car is in its brakes.

“The brakes are way bigger on this thing – it stops really good, where our brakes now are way smaller as we try to take weight out of them,” Logano said. “So trying to get used to that feel will be one thing.

“Some of the steering feeling is way different, but that’s still one of the things we want to adjust. When the car gets loose with this Next Gen car, it doesn’t come back until the driver steers the car back – it doesn’t fix itself. And that puts it more in the driver’s hands. And I like that piece.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I think you’ll see more mistakes on the race track which makes, in my opinion, better racing, and more passing opportunities.”

Logano added that due to a bigger wheel, a wider tire and differences in the body, “your natural reactions are wrong. And you have to be able to adapt quick when you feel something instead of trying to let the car fix itself.”

John Probst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing innovation, provided an update on how much work had gone in the Next Gen car since its initial test, including having to adjust the car for the much taller Logano.

“We had a really good test at Richmond, and then said, ‘How can we make the car better?’,” Probst said in the media release. “We came up with 60-plus things we could do to the car. Not all of the things could be implemented into the car we have now, but some of them are in the design phase. We effectively updated a lot of the aerodynamics on the car.”

Probst said that ISM Raceway, a relatively flat 1-mile track, is a “logical progression from Richmond” for testing the car.

“A lot of the testing we needed to do before we head to a track like Homestead – which is where we’re headed next – wasn’t completed at Richmond,” Probst said. “For us it was a really good progression from Richmond loads and speeds, and now we’re creeping the speeds up to start really testing out a lot of the mechanical parts and pieces on the car.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said during championship weekend in Miami that the car is expected to be delivered to teams in July of next year.

Sources told NBC Sports’s Nate Ryan last month that at least three companies are being strongly considered to build the chassis for the Next Gen car, including Joe Gibbs Racing.

In a video he posted to Instagram, Logano went into more detail on his reaction to driving the Next Gen car.