Ryan: The scene around Tony Stewart’s last ride was vintage ‘Smoke’

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The receiving line to acknowledge the greatness of Tony Stewart began before the green flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four hours later, it still hadn’t stopped.

After the three-time series champion and surefire NASCAR Hall of Famer climbed from his car after the finale to a Sprint Cup season and an illustrious career, a steady parade of well-wishing drivers, car owners and team members still were paying homage.

There was Joe Gibbs, who told Stewart, “Thanks, man. You helped build our deal.”

Chad Johnston, once the crew chief for Stewart and now with Kyle Larson, shared a few minutes of Indiana pride about dirt-track racing with his former driver.

Former teammate Kyle Busch stopped by to say, “It’s been awesome, man. Really appreciate all you have done for us,” and asked Stewart to save a drink for him at an upcoming Christmas party.

Jeff Gordon drew the biggest reaction.

“We going to the sand rails tonight?” Stewart said with a hearty laugh, referencing the January vacation to the dunes of Death Valley that sidelined him for the first eight races of the season with a fractured back.

“I wish,” Gordon replied. “Can we leave tomorrow morning?”

“If I break my back now, I’m not too worried about it.”

“We’re not going to do that. We’re going to have fun.”

“Damn right, we are.”

Fun was the operative word Sunday for Stewart despite a 22nd-place finish

The race ended with echoes of Dale Earnhardt at 1.5-mile tracks, where Jimmie Johnson became the third seven-time champion in NASCAR history.

But it began with another evocation of “The Intimidator,” and the significance of that symmetry was fully appreciated by the three-time champion whom many have called the modern-day version of Earnhardt.

When Stewart rolled off for the final time before a NASCAR race, a member of virtually every team had gathered along the pit lane to greet the No. 14 Chevrolet in what “Smoke” called “the best part of the day.

“It shows you what people think about you,” Stewart said. “I’ve always joked around in the garage area with crew guys, owners, crew chiefs, officials. And to see that many guys who wanted to be out there, that’s a lot.

“I think everybody knows I fight for a lot of things that a lot of people don’t want to fight for, and don’t want to speak up for, but I’m the guy who’s too dumb to not keep my mouth shut. I’ll speak up for it. I guess it shows respect.  It brought back a lot of memories when they did that with Dale Sr. when he won the Daytona 500. Truly humbling and honored.”

The farewell tour that wasn’t – Stewart demanded that NASCAR and tracks downplay his exit from NASCAR over the course of his final season – finally was sprinkled with some degree of pomp, circumstance and sentimentality Sunday. Before the race, Stewart was feted at the driver’s meeting with a standing ovation and video tribute that celebrated his fiery outbursts as much as his countless triumphs.

Despite a nondescript result, he exited his car to cheers of “Thank you, Tony! Thanks, Smoke!” from a crowd of a few dozen fans – some dressed in Chili Bowl apparel, others wearing T-shirts from Stewart’s time in IndyCar and USAC. They waved their smart phones and took selfies from the opposite side of the car from the throngs interviewing Stewart.

Perhaps some had been listening on his team’s channel when he provided last glimpse at the cantankerous force of will that made him an all-time great.

After a strategy gamble of running 60 laps on tires that wear in half that distance on the abrasive surface, the frustration multiplied in a steady stream of invective aimed at NASCAR after a late red flag. Stewart spent many of the waning laps hissing at NASCAR – “still screaming just like I would on any other race, so I was true to form all the way to the end.

“We got screwed out of about four spots on the restart when the lineup was screwed up, guys passed us on the yellow lining up, which wasn’t right.” Stewart said. “At least it’s all about consistency. (NASCAR officials) haven’t been able to get that right, and they still aren’t getting it right, so …  ahh, what the hell. It’s over.”

Of course, it isn’t over after Stewart takes his final ride (“the car doesn’t have a scratch on it”) back to his homestead in Columbus, Indiana, for safekeeping with the rest of his racing memorabilia.

His first offseason without any concern about NASCAR driving since 1999 will begin with an annual trip to Georgia for racing four-wheelers off road with friends. He hasn’t planned any races beyond that – there will be no more in 2016 – but he “isn’t going to wait long,” nor will he be restrictive about what he runs.

Dirt races are a definite. What else? Well, Ford, the new manufacturer for Stewart-Haas Racing team, has spots in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Stewart is interested in sports cars, so …

Where will you be racing, Smoke?

“Everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got to look and see what order I can do it in. Eventually, we’re going to do it all. But I’ve still got a couple of weeks of work to do as a car owner.”

Ahh, yes. Stewart has provided constant reminders throughout the season that he will remain intimately involved with NASCAR as a car owner. He expects to attend at least a dozen races next year, and you can expect he will be as outspoken as he was during his last tour (when a tirade about lug nut policies led to a new rule).

As NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton jokingly reminded during the drivers meeting, Stewart still can be summoned to the series’ hauler for reprimand when his brasher side flares – and that’s certain to happen.

“You’ve got to read between the lines,” Stewart proclaimed when asked how he viewed the incessant tributes from his peers. “A lot of these guys are sitting there so excited because they know they never have to race me again.

“It’s an honor. I’m the guy who will fight with them if I disagree with them, but at the same time, they know I’m guy that will fight for them, too.”

Stewart took one last question before ambling to the stage to congratulate Johnson on tying Earnhardt.

Would he keep fighting for his driving brethren?

“If they want me to,” he smiled.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.