Smoke’s back: Tony Stewart’s first runs at Daytona ‘like putting on an old pair of shoes’

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Tony Stewart passed his first test and got a solid B for his effort – as in he’s B-A-C-K.

Behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for the first time in nearly 6 ½ months, Stewart  quickly shook off the rust and was right back at home during Friday’s two practice sessions for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

Stewart suffered the worst wreck of his overall racing career last Aug. 5 while competing in a sprint car race in Iowa. He suffered multiple fractures in his right leg, endured three surgeries and – almost an afterthought when you consider the extent of his injuries – missed the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season.

But Friday, Stewart looked – and talked – in his usual form, almost as if nothing had happened to him over the last half-year.

“It felt good,” Stewart said simply about being back in the saddle again. “That is better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache, pain of some kind that would bother us. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again.”

Although not one to typically show emotion – unless of course he’s blowing his stack at another driver or reporter – Stewart admitted he broke into a big smile “when we hit the end of pit road leaving,” he said. “That is way too long to wait to get back in a race car that is for sure.”

Stewart was so eager to get back on track – literally and figuratively – that he was a VERY uncharacteristically 18 minutes early to get into his race car.

“Every five minutes I was looking at the clock from 3 o’clock on going, ‘Is it 4:30 yet?’ because I wanted to get dressed at 4:30 and come in,” Stewart said. “That is a long time to be staring at the clock for an hour and a half. That is small compared to the seven months. … I didn’t want to wait anymore, to be honest.”

Stewart admitted he was a bit apprehensive of climbing through the window and into the car for the first time, but not for fear or hesitation, but rather for another key reason.

“Piece of cake, I didn’t fall,” he laughed. “I think that was what everybody was waiting for. If there was ever a time to not screw up it is getting in the car this time. About 400 cameras there so I didn’t want to be the guy that fell out of the car and got on the cover of the paper for that.”

Stewart logged 50 total laps around the 2.5-mile high banks of DIS. In the first session, he covered 24 laps with a top speed of 197.377 mph, good for 10th fastest among the 18 drivers that took part.

In the second and final Sprint Unlimited practice session, Stewart ran the most laps (26) of the 15 drivers that took part, with a top speed of 197.994 mph, good for ninth fastest.

In hindsight, once the first practice session was over, what he thought might be a big deal actually wound up being more of a business-as-usual outcome.

“I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger deal than that,” Stewart said. “That is the good part of it. I didn’t think it would just blend in like it did. It just kind of felt like any other day at the office.  Once we got off pit road and got going and actually got in the pack there, you forgot about all the other stuff and you went back to work. Just got back in the swing of things.

“For somebody who hadn’t been in a car it sure doesn’t feel like I haven’t been in a car. It feels like I was in it a week ago already. I was pleasantly surprised for that.”

Tony being Tony, he gave brief thought to taking part in a nearby short track race later Friday, but quickly wiped the idea from his mind for good reason.

“If I didn’t think Greg Zipadelli (Stewart Haas Racing vice president of competition and Stewart’s former crew chief) would absolutely kill me tonight, I would probably want to go race at Volusia (Speedway) tonight,” Stewart said “It felt that good. I don’t think Zippy would be the only guy. I think the entire organization here would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the frontstretch so I couldn’t leave.”

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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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