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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.

NASCAR announces merger agreement with International Speedway Corp.

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International Speedway Corp. announced Wednesday morning that it has entered into an agreement and plan of merger with NASCAR. The deal is valued at approximately $2 billion.

Shareholders will receive $45 for each share.

This deal is expected to close this calendar year.

International Speedway Corp. owns 12 tracks that host NASCAR races, including Daytona International Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR issued a statement Wednesday: “We are pleased with the progress that the negotiation and execution of the merger agreement between NASCAR and ISC represents.  While important regulatory and shareholder approval processes remain, we look forward to the successful final resolution of this matter and continuing our work to grow this sport and deliver great racing experiences for our fans everywhere. With a strong vision for the future, the France family’s commitment to NASCAR and the larger motorsports industry has never been greater.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France told competitors in the drivers meeting before the Daytona 500 that “this sport was built by families and we’re just a part of it. It’s so important that we remember that this is still a family business. Our family is committed to it.”

The agreement announced Wednesday allows NASCAR to control those tracks, along with Iowa Speedway, which it already owns. That could make it easier for NASCAR to move dates to take a date from one track to another. NASCAR President Steve Phelps has stated that the schedule is among the areas the sanctioning body is looking at making changes. NASCAR’s five-year sanctioning agreement with tracks ends after next season.

With NASCAR private, it won’t have to publicly report attendance revenue and other financials as ISC had to do as a publicly traded company.

ISC also announced that a class-action lawsuit that had been filed against it after NASCAR and ISC announced last November plans to merge will be dropped.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight tracks that host NASCAR races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, announced April 24 that it had received a non-binding proposal from Sonic Financial Corp. to acquire all outstanding shares of common stock other than those already held by Sonic. Bruton Smith and his family own and control Sonic Financial Corp. Smith is the founder and majority stakeholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc.

The only tracks not owned by ISC or SMI that host Cup races are Pocono Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After finishing third in the All-Star Race, Kyle Busch is back atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings – although it was not a unanimous decision.

The real story this week is Kyle Larson. Although it was a non-points event, Larson’s win in the All-Star Race propelled him from not even in last week’s rankings to No. 3 this week. Larson is one of three drivers who went from unranked last week to into this week’s top 10. Also making a big jump from last week was Kevin Harvick (from 7th to 2nd).

Several drivers took big drops from last week, including Chase Elliott (1st to 5th), Alex Bowman (2nd to 6th), Clint Bowyer (4th to tied for 10th) and Brad Keselowski (5th to out of the top 10).

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look heading into the Coca-Cola 600:

1. Kyle Busch (38 points): Finished third in All-Star Race but climbs the rankings for his rant on the radio late in the race. If you can’t win .… But he did win the Truck race and finished the year winning all five of his starts. Last week: 3rd.

2. Kevin Harvick (32 points): Once again, falls short of victory lane. Pit crew mistakes again. Will they finally get things fixed in time for the race that typically has the most pit stops of the season in it? Last week: 7th.

3. Kyle Larson (30 points): Will the $1 million man build upon his riches to earn some wins that will actually count towards the playoffs? Last week: unranked.

4. Joey Logano (24 points): Strong run at the end to secure top-five finish in All-Star Race. Could be a big factor in the 600. Last week: 8th.

5. Chase Elliott (22 points): Things didn’t go his way. Hey, he has 600 miles this weekend to make things happen. Last week: 1st.

6. Alex Bowman (17 points): With three straight runner-ups and eighth in the All-Star Race, a win could be right around the corner – perhaps as early as Sunday. Last week: 2nd.

7. Bubba Wallace (14 points): Storybook night – stage win in Open and fifth-place finish in All-Star Race – gave him an emotional boost that may lead to better things to come. Last week: unranked.

8. William Byron (10 points): Strong move to win the first stage in Monster Open and then finishes the night with a ninth-place finish in the All-Star Race. Last week: unranked.

9. Martin Truex Jr. (9 points): Fast car but then later had issues and finished 10th. Last week: 9th.

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Punched his ticket to a 12th-place finish, then went out and punched Ryan Newman on pit road. Will their feud flare up again on Sunday? Last week: 4th.

(tie) 10. Kurt Busch (7 points): Late crash left him with a disappointing 17th-place finish (out of 19 drivers). Look for a big comeback in the 600. Given his consistency this season, he’s overdue for a win. Last week: 6th.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski (4 points), Aric Almirola (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Ross Chastain (1 point).

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

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

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

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

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

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Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

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