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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2017 PRI Show post-weekend notebook

Rahal and Bell's Chris Wheeler. Photo: IndyCar
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The 2017 edition of the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show is in the books for another year. Here’s some notes we gathered from the event at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis.

While INDYCAR did not have a booth at this year’s show, there were still some interesting Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires nuggets to emerge.

RAHAL RUNNING REV

On Thursday, Graham Rahal was named as honorary chair of the Rev Indy charity event, held before the month of May’s on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway really gets going. The event is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, which grew its relationship with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this past year.

The kickoff event was held at legendary St. Elmo’s, at its 1933 Lounge upstairs, with some samples of the food that will be served. Particularly noteworthy was St. Elmo’s trademark shrimp cocktail, which even caught out some local reporters on its heat…

PAGENAUD IN FINE FORM

Pagenaud meets the media. Photo: IndyCar

Further breakouts from him will come in the following days, but Simon Pagenaud was in very good spirits when meeting a small group of reporters on Thursday. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion mentioned a small relief that he didn’t have to go through the ringer of the champion’s postseason media tour in the days after Sonoma, as he won the season finale. That can be draining, he said, but it allowed him to get refreshed. Since Sonoma, he raced at Petit Le Mans, where he drove with Team Penske’s one-off Oreca 07 Gibson LMP2 car, he went back home to France before coming back to the U.S. for a mix of testing and other year-end commitments.

Of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, Pagenaud said it’s close to the initial Dallara DW12 chassis at its outset, although hailed the better and more balanced weight distribution of the new kit.

He also said it will be a different team dynamic without having Helio Castroneves there full-time. Castroneves, he said, kept all three of Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power grounded and all in good temperament at the same time. Pagenaud made an interesting point that with each of the three full-time drivers all at the same point in their careers – they all have one championship and none has an Indianapolis 500 victory yet – none has the upper hand, and there isn’t the “aura” of Castroneves’ three ‘500 wins hanging over their head.

On top of that, Pagenaud cracked several jokes and hailed his involvement as part of the “Penske Games” social media competition the team created. In some respects, Pagenaud hailed his own lack of success there to generate more notoriety!

SPM’S SMASH, RETURN, THEN PRE-SEBRING SCRAMBLE

The 2018 Dallara UAK got its first crash test – particularly inadvertently – by James Hinchcliffe during testing last week at Phoenix International Raceway (soon to be ISM Raceway). The team was still in the process of diagnosing what caused a crash at Turn 3 of the 1-mile oval, an odd place to have an impact.

What it’s meant was the car, which is short on spare parts at the moment, had to make it back to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Indianapolis shop and get rebuilt over a 48-hour period in advance of this week’s final round of 2017 testing at Sebring International Raceway’s short course. Testing can run through December 14 before the holiday blackout, and before testing shifts from manufacturer testing to team testing after the new year.

SCHMIDT’S SHANK SYNC-UP FURTHER DETAILS

Schmidt, Steve Eriksen (HPD), Harvey and Shank. Photo: IndyCar

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt was present at Michael Shank’s combination IndyCar and sports car announcements on Friday, which confirmed further details of Jack Harvey’s program for next season. It’s meant to be a three-year deal, and will begin with the six races Harvey will run in 2018. Will Anderson, who has been an assistant engineer with SPM for several years after joining from Dale Coyne Racing, will be Harvey’s race engineer.

SPM will loan a chassis to Shank for testing in January before Shank’s team receives its chassis in February, and that’s an interesting point to note. Schmidt said SPM, which saw its proposed deal with Calmels Sport for next year’s Indianapolis 500 fall through, could still run a third in-house SPM car for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 beyond the two full-time entries and the MSR/Shank car for Harvey.

But Schmidt’s long-term belief and relationship with Harvey helped make the move a reality, as Harvey drove two really strong years with the team in Indy Lights.

“His timeline is our timeline; we were not going to do it for only one year,” Schmidt told NBC Sports. “Jack has been a part of this team for several years and our job is to help him and Mike continue to grow in their IndyCar careers.”

FURTHER TBA’S GETTING REVEALED SOON?

Gathered around the Bell booth in Indy. Photo: IndyCar

If the rumor mill is to be believed, next week could see at least one if not both of the two known outstanding TBA slots at Dale Coyne Racing (No. 19 Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 Chevrolet for road and street courses) get revealed.

We spoke to Carpenter at the PRI Show who confirmed the No. 20 car’s road and street course car is “close” to being filled, and is down to just two potential candidates. Asked when he wanted to announce, Carpenter deadpanned, “Last week!”

If you know the names of the free agents that are already out there, you pretty much know who’s in the frame for these two seats.

Carpenter has one more round of testing this week at Sebring. The team has been busy with testing at multiple tracks, and has moved into its new shop on Georgetown Rd. from its previous location near IMS in Speedway, Ind.

BUSY TIMES AT BELL BOOTH WITH INDY, MRTI DRIVERS

Both Carpenter and Spencer Pigot were among a bevy of IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires drivers on the Bell Racing U.S.A. stage during the weekend. Others included Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Conor Daly, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Pippa Mann, and MRTI veterans Aaron Telitz, Ayla Agren, Juan Piedrahita and Colton Herta.

Additionally, Bell announced it will be opening a pro shop in Speedway. It’s busy times for the helmet manufacturer but one that is held in high regard in the open-wheel and sports car communities.

GOOD TIMES FOR DUSICK’S CHARITY EVENT

Another of the quickly-becoming-a-PRI-staple type events is the “Racers Know Dave Dusick” charity fundraiser, supported by Cooper Tires, which this year supported the Riley Children’s Foundation. That foundation supports Riley Hospital for Children, Indiana’s only comprehensive hospital dedicated exclusively to the care of kids.

A further recap can be found via Dusick’s @IKnowDaveDusick Twitter account; Dusick is a veteran behind-the-scenes member of the racing community, primarily known for his Race Track Engineering business and a member of race control groups in various series. A tweet from Alexander Rossi is below.

CALLAWAY CONFIRMATION GIVES PWC NEEDED SHOT IN THE ARM

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC

Pirelli World Challenge got three good pieces of news in a two-day period last week, with first the pair of Wednesday announcements that K-PAX Racing would switch to Bentley’s Continental GT3 models and Robinson Racing would run a pair of Mercedes-AMG GT4s in the GTS class.

Confirmation of Callaway’s team program for GT in 2018, with Michael Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz the two drivers revealed there, was an added bonus. The striking Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R was unveiled in full, with comments from Reeves Callaway and WC Vision head Greg Gill, with other series insiders present. Aided by the addition of Erin Gahagan as team manager, who has recent PWC experience with EFFORT Racing, that should help Callaway in its entry into the championship. She will continue as team manager for the Tequila Patron ESM team with its Nissan Onroak DPi in IMSA for another season as well.

Cooper’s confirmation keeps him in another GM model after developing into a top-line GT driver the last couple seasons in one of the factory Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs, and after winning a GTS championship in a Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R prior to that. Keilwitz, an ADAC GT Masters veteran, will be new to the U.S. but should learn quickly as other European converts tend to do.

“In a word, hallelujah,” was Gill’s immediate take at the presentation of the new car.

PWC also held its annual “State of the Series” meeting for competitors on Friday afternoon. A combination of the usual marketing, competition and communication updates were revealed to competitors. Some more intriguing elements from that should be revealed at a later date.