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Tony Stewart on Cup qualifying, team ownership and sprint car racing

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RICHMOND, Va. — Tony Stewart is many things from being a three-time Cup champion to a team owner, NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and a sprint car driver, but for all the things Stewart has done and can do in a car he’s known as much for something else.

His honesty and bluntness. 

When Stewart talks about the issues with Cup qualifying, he’s frank in saying of NASCAR: “They make one bad decision and then they compound it by having to make three more bad decisions to try to make up for the first bad decision they made.”

While he’s been a critic of NASCAR, Stewart also isn’t afraid to applaud series officials but admits what NASCAR does things right it often gets overlooked.

“You make one bad decision and it takes 10 good decision to overcome that one,” he said.

Stewart discussed a variety of topics this weekend at Richmond Raceway. Here’s what he said:

Q: You’ve been outspoken about young drivers with money coming into the sport, but hasn’t that always been the case in racing? Haven’t some people missed moving up because they didn’t have the look or the money?

Tony Stewart: I didn’t have the right look. I still don’t have the right look. I never had paid a dime. … That whole Generational Next thing, you look at the criteria for that, is that how we really want to set our fields? Is that how we want to do this? I think they’ve got to relook at how they do it. I honestly think that’s part of why we’re losing so many people. I heard people (Thursday night) at the dirt races, say ‘I like coming here because there’s not as many rules.’ That’s literally what people were saying. It was that simple to them. It’s hard to argue with that.

I understand why we have the rules we have. The fans are saying there are too many rules. If they can’t follow along, how are they going to follow along?

Q: Too many rules. Is that the issue with Cup qualifying?

Stewart: You already line the cars up on pit road in an organized manner. You have a maximum speed. Have a minimum speed (on pit road). Once that car pulls out of its spot, it has to keep going, plain and simple. You can go anywhere in that speed range you want but once you take off, you’ve got to keep going. How much more simple is it than that?

All NASCAR has to do at that point is look at the screen to make sure you’re not going too fast or too slow. They’re already doing the too fast part, so how hard is it to just add the too slow part? If you go too slow, your lap is not allowed. If you go too fast, your lap is not allowed. It’s pretty damn simple I think. But they keep adding things that make them have to make judgment calls. Why do you constantly keep putting yourself in position to have to make a ball-and-strike call? Put it in the drivers’ and crew chiefs’ and spotters’ hands, not your hands.

Quit making it about it you. Make them have to make the decision. They make one bad decision and then they compound it by having to make three more bad decisions to try to make up for the first bad decision they made.

They just … somebody needs to just grab them by the collar and say, ‘Stop, take a breath and sit down and start over and think about this and rework it.’ Their head is 6 inches forward of their feet and they can’t get their feet to keep catching up to what their heads are doing all the time.”

Q: Is NASCAR doing anything well?

Stewart: There’s a ton of things they’re doing well. It’s like a negative comment takes 10 positive comments to overcome one negative comment. You make one bad decision and it takes 10 good decision to overcome that one. There’s a ton of things they’re doing right. There’s a ton of things they’re working on for the future that they’re also doing things right. There’s so much low-hanging fruit that they could fix.

Q: Such as?

Stewart: There’s a whole list. I’m not going to get through the list. I’ve got to make sure I get my cars through tech.

Q: Car owners talk about containing costs but if I’m a car owner and I have to decide between a driver with money and one maybe more talented but doesn’t have the money, I’ll likely take the one with money.

Stewart: That’s my whole point. That’s the direction our sport is going. That’s screwed up. If that’s where we’re going, we’re in bad shape.

Q: Do you feel like things are being done to help owners contain costs?

Stewart: There’s a lot of things that they’re working on to try to do that. It’s a constant battle, you’re constantly battling technology. Technology is the biggest root of the problem, but you can’t stop technology. You look at these cars, they’ve kept the simple basic car, the basics of the car hasn’t changed for how many years. Things that have changed are safety improvements, which are definitely justified and appreciated. It’s not a linear progression with technology, … it’s virtually impossible for NASCAR and Goodyear and everybody involved, it’s hard for them to get in front of it because you don’t know what’s coming next. … It’s hard to get your arms around all of it. They do a really good job of trying to contain it, trying to get in front of it, but it’s a hard process.

Q: How do you feel Stewart-Haas Racing is doing this year?

Stewart: We’ve been solid. There’s just a couple of things missing that we need to be where we want to be. To come out with a new car this year and be this close out of the box, I feel like we’re pretty happy about that. Obviously, we set our standards pretty high on what we expect. We’re obviously thrashing at the shop to find what is going to make these cars happy and it’s just no different than what happened last year with those guys. We’re working on it. Like I say, it’s a constant evolution. What you did last year isn’t good enough, you’ve got to push it forward and keep fighting. New trick of the week.

Q: How is your sprint car racing going?

Stewart: Better actually. We should have run fourth (Thursday) not sixth. Had a motor problem at the end and got paying attention to the oil pressure gauge, which was on zero instead of watching where I was going. We’re running a lot better. Before last weekend, we had a 4.0 average I think for the 15 races we had run. I’m not sure with a 13th and a sixth how that changes it, but we’re running a lot better and it’s because we’re racing a lot.

You’re running all the time and that’s the only way you’re going to get better with these guys. I’ve actually ran more than a lot of the guys out there. That’s the only way you’re going to get better is running as many shows as they run. They’re good teams and they’re on their game already, so if you’re going to catch up, physically you’re going to have to run that many races to catch up.

Bent fenders, first-time winners define start of NBC’s NASCAR schedule

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We’re four races into NBC Sports’ portion of the NASCAR schedule and actor Michael Rooker was right about one thing: things have gotten real.

There have been four Cup races shown on NBC networks and each has delivered a finish – or lightning strike – worth talking about.

Each race has been won by a different driver who also was making their first trip to victory lane this year. Two earned their first career Cup wins.

Here’s a look at the how the second half of the season has unfolded.

June 30, 2019 – Chicagoland Speedway

Alex Bowman finally punched his ticket to victory lane in the Cup Series.

It took 134 series starts, three consecutive runner-up finishes earlier in the year and a lengthy rain delay to begin the race day.

Racing under the lights, Bowman dueled with Kyle Larson over the last eight laps, with the two drivers making contact with six laps to go as Bowman drafted off the left side of Larson’s car.

After he took the checkered flag, Bowman’s victory lane visit was delayed even further when his No. 88 Chevrolet got stuck in the rain-soaked infield.

“I’m the dumb guy that won the race and then got stuck in the mud,” Bowman told NBCSN.

July 7 – Daytona International Speedway

Though there wasn’t a dramatic on-track finish to the final scheduled July Cup race at Daytona, there was a surprise winner.

Justin Haley had to wait a significantly shorter amount of time than Bowman to get his first Cup win, celebrating his in 131 fewer races.

Following a massive crash with 43 laps to go, leader Kurt Busch and a group of other teams elected to pit when NASCAR said they would go back to green in one lap.

Then lightning struck within eight miles of the track.

The field was brought to pit road with 33 laps to go and Haley scored as the leader in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet, a team and car in their first year of existence.

The race never resumed as NASCAR eventually called the race official.

“I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega,” Haley told NBCSN. “It’s just unreal. I don’t know how to feel.”

While Busch had been on the “wrong side of a lightning bolt” he wouldn’t have to wait long for his own celebration.

July 13 – Kentucky Speedway

“Hell yeah! Hell yeah!” bellowed Kurt Busch on the start-finish line after the Quaker State 400.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver had plenty of reasons to be excited.

He’d just triumphed in an overtime finish over his little brother Kyle Busch.

It was the first time Kurt Busch had won in a 1-2 Cup finish against Kyle.

The elder Busch survived making contact with his brother twice on the final lap, including as they exited Turn 4 in the race to the checkered flag.

The victory was Kurt Busch’s first since joining CGR in December and also was the first career win for crew chief Matt McCall in 164 starts. The victory snapped a 64-race winless streak for Ganassi stretching back to the 2017 regular-season finale at Richmond.

July 21 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick is the latest driver to end a lengthy winless streak with dramatic flair.

Sunday saw the Stewart-Haas Racing driver end a 21-race drought after he held off Denny Hamlin over the final 35 laps while racing on older tires.

After Hamlin and other drivers pitted under the final caution, Harvick and two other cars stayed out.

Hamlin wasn’t able to get within striking distance until the last lap. The two veterans slammed sheet metal twice, with Hamlin’s failed bump-and-run in Turn 1 and then Harvick cutting off Hamlin’s path as they exited Turn 4.

“I knew that (Hamlin) was gonna take a shot,” Harvick said. “I would have taken a shot. I stood on the brakes and just tried to keep it straight. I just didn’t want to get him back from the inside and let him have another shot. I wanted to at least be in control of who was gonna have contact in Turn 3 and 4. It was a heck of a finish, closer than what we wanted, but it was our only chance.”

Hamlin was left to re-think the final lap as Harvick celebrated in the background.

Second sucks,” Hamlin told NBCSN.

Up Next: Pocono

Six races remain in the regular season and the next chance for Cup drama will come at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), the 2.5-mile triangle that the series visited in June.

But the circumstances will be a little bit different. After complaints about the competition in June, the track will apply the PJ1 traction compound to areas in all three turns.

It’s the first time the track has applied the traction agent to its surface.

It will also be the third consecutive race the Cup Series has held on a track treated with it, following Kentucky and New Hampshire.

And we all know how those races ended.

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New Hampshire winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickHe no longer has to answer the question of when is he going to win (same for Stewart-Haas Racing). Now the question is if this will lead to a string of wins for the No. 4 team, which has shown speed but not been able to capitalize on it.

Parity — Kevin Harvick marked the seventh different winner in the last seven Cup races, the longest streak of the season.

Ryan Newman First, he was in a backup car and had to start at the rear on a track where passing is difficult. Then, he had a broken coil wire that sapped his engine’s power with about 100 laps to go. His team recovered and he finished seventh for his fifth top 10 in the last six races. Also, he climbed into a playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto His fifth-place finish was his third top-10 result in the last five races. Good progress for Leavine Family Racing.

LOSERS

Jimmie JohnsonBack-to-back 30th-place finishes have dropped the seven-time champion out of a playoff spot. He’s never missed NASCAR’s postseason — and is the only driver who can say that he’s been in the Chase/playoffs every year since its inception in 2004. Will that streak continue? Or will it end this year?

Richard Childress Racing — RCR cars finished 37th (Daniel Hemric) and 32nd (Austin Dillon). Hemric’s day ended after contact from Daniel Suarez. Dillon blew a right front tire early and that damaged his car.

Hendrick Motorsports — Alex Bowman’s team went through two cars before Sunday’s race. William Byron had to go to a backup because of an incident in practice. Mechanical issues caused Jimmie Johnson to finish 30th and Chase Elliott to place 29th. Bowman placed 14th and Byron led the way with a 12th-place finish. The best thing about the weekend for Hendrick Motorsports is it is over.

Kyle Larson — Two crashes within the last 100 laps made for a bad day Sunday.

With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is.

“If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”