Stewart balances personal bliss, professional angst

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart is angry – what else is new? – and wants the record set straight regarding recent business decisions.

He also is in love – wait, who? Smoke? – and five months away from his 50th birthday finds himself happier in his personal life than ever before.

But even as he’s settled into a blissful routine with drag racer Leah Pruett, a relationship that began early in the pandemic when Stewart’s hectic schedule was suddenly wiped clean, he can’t overlook the criticism being lobbed his way.

It was him, he insists, not NASCAR, who didn’t renew the Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway. And he tried to sign Kyle Larson to Stewart-Haas Racing but couldn’t get partner approval on the NASCAR driver suspended for most of 2020 for using a racial slur.

Publicly, fans left disgruntled comments on his social media posts. Privately, his beloved sprint car community whispered and wondered how Stewart blew two deals.

Stewart understands being rebuffed on signing Larson, even though that slammed the brakes on Stewart’s attempt to help a friend resurrect his career while adding a top NASCAR talent to SHR’s four-car organization. Companies make tough business decisions and Larson, since signed by Hendrick Motorsports, still has to redeem himself to corporations that pay the racing bills.

But the Truck Series debacle is one Stewart can’t let go. He’s heard too many people say it was NASCAR that left Eldora, the Ohio dirt track Stewart owns, after an eight-year partnership. It was Stewart’s group that got a dirt track placed on the NASCAR national schedule, invested in capital improvements at the facility and built one of the most popular events on the Truck Series schedule.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Stewart said his goal had always been to use the Truck Series event as proof that Xfinity and Cup can race on dirt and should race at Eldora. But two days before NASCAR released the Cup schedule in September, Stewart received a tip that Bristol Motor Speedway was going to transform its facility into a dirt track for its first 2021 Cup race.

“I felt like I’d been mule-kicked in the gut,” Stewart told the AP.

Incensed that not a single NASCAR executive had given him a heads-up, he immediately told his staff to tear up the sanctioning agreement he’d yet to sign for the 2021 Truck Series race.

A short dialogue with NASCAR finally began, and Stewart took the weekend to calm down. His staff looked at the numbers and, even though the trucks were profitable for the track, the race ranked only fourth on Eldora’s events – while requiring double the effort and sweat equity.

When he reconvened with NASCAR after a few days to think, Stewart said he was direct.

“I asked if Eldora was under consideration for an Xfinity or Cup race in the future, and I was told not at this time,” Stewart said. “So I said we were done.”

Some believe NASCAR pulled the race from Eldora or that NASCAR moved the Truck Race to Knoxville Raceway to spite Stewart, but he’s adamant neither is true.

“This was entirely our decision and people need to understand. I am extremely frustrated as a track owner that there was zero communication from NASCAR,” he said. “Nobody ever had any conversation with me about Eldora or Cup on dirt until the deal with Bristol was about to be announced.”

He added he was also ignored when he inquired about his eligibility for next month’s exhibition Busch Clash on the road course at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart said he absolutely wanted to run the race, but no one at NASCAR followed up with the three-time Cup champion.

Stewart, feted as a first-ballot inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last January in one of the final industry-wide events before the pandemic, now feels snubbed by the series he’s been devoted to for more than two decades.

He has plenty on his plate, though, and has become the T-shirt and jeans version of Roger Penske with his motorsports portfolio. He’s got a full 2021 schedule of sprint car races that starts this weekend, full ownership of Eldora and partial ownership of Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway and Macon (Ill.) Speedway. Stewart also owns a World of Outlaws team and is the series owner of both the All Star Circuit of Champions and a grassroots racing series he renamed the All Star Circuit of Champions TQ Midgets.

This year will also mark a new venture with Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham on the Superstar Racing Experience aimed at attracting all-stars no longer competing full-time. The six-race, short-track series will air on Saturday nights on CBS, with Stewart competing alongside Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Bobby Labonte, Mark Webber and other big names from various disciplines.

He scoffs at a false narrative spreading that Eldora was punished by NASCAR for Stewart’s SRX involvement – “If people are worried about Ray Evernham, me and six races, they’ve got bigger things to worry about,” he said – and notes that SRX is racing at both Eldora and Knoxville, the lone dirt track on the Truck Series schedule.

All his business dealings, and next month’s start of SHR’s NASCAR season, have Stewart spread very thin when he’s trying to prioritize someone else in his life for the first time. He and Pruett were introduced in 2019 via FaceTime by drag racing legend Don Prudhomme. They didn’t meet in person until they wound up at the same motorsports event appearance, and their first date was the week before the pandemic shut down the country in March.

With nowhere to be for the first time in his life as a racer, Stewart accepted Pruett’s invitation to spend four days with friends at Lake Havasu in Arizona. He stayed for four months, dragged her to short tracks across Oklahoma and Texas when his racing schedule resumed, then became a constant spectator at her events when NHRA began.

Stewart is adapting to life as the supportive spectator at Pruett’s events, but his need to understand Pruett’s form of racing led him to two recent sessions at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. The two are diligently working on a master calendar of all their events because Stewart hopes to attend the majority of her NHRA races.

His first conflict comes at NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500, where he’s hoping COVID-19 procedures have relaxed enough to allow him into the garage and around his team. Stewart has not been inside the NASCAR bubble with SHR since the Las Vegas race last February. But the 500 is also Feb. 14 and he’s not sure how that will fly with Pruett on their first Valentine’s Day together.

“My personal life is the best it’s ever been, by far,” he said. “She gets me. And I enjoy going to her events and being the one doing the supporting. I mean, if she wanted me to support her at basket-weaving competitions I probably wouldn’t enjoy it, but I am very happy with this relationship and where my life is right now.”

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.