Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Will Tony Stewart finally break Daytona 500 jinx on Sunday?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What should potentially be one of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 hasn’t even registered a blip on the NASCAR media radar this year.

With so much attention focused on Austin Dillon bringing the legendary No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series after a 13-year absence and then putting it on the pole for Sunday’s race, the media seem to have forgotten an almost equally important story.

Tony Stewart will make his 16th consecutive career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, making him third among active drivers with the most starts without a win in the field for the Great American Race.

Terry Labonte, who has announced that Sunday will be his final career start at Daytona, tops the list with 32 starts in the 500 without a win. Brother Bobby will make his 22nd start on Sunday without a win in the big race.

Over the last four or five 500s, Stewart has come into Speedweeks as arguably one of the key focal points of media attention not because of what he’s done, but what he’s not done.

But no one is talking about Stewart’s 0-for-15 record in this year’s edition of Speedweeks.

Stewart comes into Sunday as essentially the Dale Earnhardt of his generation when it comes to Daytona 500 success. After years of frustration, Earnhardt finally won his first – and ultimately only – Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998.

At the same time, Stewart, a winner of 48 career races in 521 starts on the Cup circuit, is somewhat of a paradox.

It’s not that he’s a bad driver at Daytona. In 30 career Cup starts there, he has four wins, but all have come in summer’s Coca Zero 400. Stewart also has nine top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

He also has seven Nationwide Series wins there.

After four top-five and three other top-10 finishes in an eight-year stretch of the 500 from 2002 through 2009 (he also finished a career-worse 43rd in 2007), Stewart has struggled in the last four editions of the Great American Race: 22nd (2010), 13th (2011), 16th (2012) and his second-worst finish in the race, 41st, last season.

“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”

A Daytona 500 win is unquestionably “No. 1” on his bucket list, Stewart said.

“I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at,” Stewart said, referring again to Le Mans, the Indy 500, etc. “But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”

With Sunday being Stewart’s first official points-paying Cup race since last summer’s wreck in a sprint car race that resulted in a severely broken leg and caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season, a win Sunday would be all the more sweeter.

That’s not to say Stewart hasn’t come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race. He was runner-up in the 2004 race and third in 2002 and 2008.

The latter finish still eats at Stewart six years later, when he watched Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch make a last lap charge past him to the checkered flag to finish 1-2.

“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently,” Stewart said. “If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end.

“I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed – I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.

“That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”

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IndyCar CEO: No safety changes for 2016 car, despite Wilson death

indycar ceo mark miles
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An investigation into the August accident that killed driver Justin Wilson has resulted in no recommendations for immediate safety changes in race cars, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said.

But changes could be in line by 2017, including some sort of canopy or enclosed cockpit or surrounding apron to protect drivers, Miles told USA Today.

The 37-year-old Wilson was struck in the head from a piece of debris that flew off Sage Karam’s wrecked car during a race at Pocono Raceway. Wilson died the following day in a Pennsylvania hospital.

“What the report provides is a lot of technical data about the energy involved and the forces and exactly what happened and all of that,” Miles told USA Today. “I don’t think there were any revelations. I think for everybody, with or without the report, all of us hope to be able to make progress in finding ways to make the cockpit safer and to reduce the risks.

“So for example, there may be some short-term measures like tethering some parts that weren’t this year, but could be. That’s a work in progress. But I don’t want to give the sense that was because of anything revealed in the accident investigation. What you think happened, happened there.”

One area that has received considerable discussion is the potential for enclosed cockpits or canopies in Indy cars. But the development of such a device will take time, prompting Miles to predict that if canopies or capsules are ultimately added as a safety precaution, it likely would not occur until at least the 2017 season.

“You’re not going to see a change to the car for next year in this regard just because I don’t think it’s possible,” Miles said. “… These are technical challenges and it’s hard to imagine that anything transformative will happen this year. At this point, I wouldn’t rule out 2017, but the research has to be done, the development has to be done to answer the questions as to what can be done by when.”

Addressing specifically the investigation of Wilson’s accident, Miles said, “It reinforces the risks, I think, of the open cockpit and further energizes efforts in motorsport to try to reduce those risks.”

But devising a cockpit or canopy – if either is adopted – will take considerable development and testing time. Miles said he’s had lengthy discussions with officials from groups such as NASA and the aerospace industry that provide cockpits for entities such as jet fighters.

He added that Formula 1 officials have also been studying enclosed cockpits for quite some time, particularly things such as ingress/egress from within the cockpit, as well as heat buildup inside.

“Obviously, the foundational point is whether there’s a solution which protects the driver and there may be no solution which provides complete protection if you get into a situation like in Las Vegas (where driver Dan Wheldon died as a result of head injuries when he stuck a catch fence support),” Miles said. “But it’s how much more safe can you make it while proving for not having unintended consequences.”

Miles said that in addition to canopies and enclosed cockpits, IndyCar is also looking at other variations and the potential risk vs. rewards of those as well.

“This is not necessarily about a completely closed cockpit,” Miles said. “It could be more of an apron. If something hits that … it’s possible (the object) could be propelled higher and further and an unintended consequence could be the risk of something going into the crowd.

“It doesn’t necessarily knock it down and put it on the track if something was coming at a car like that, especially something like a tire that has energy in it.

“What is clear to me is we’ve got an outside perspective as do our safety people, on the long list of things you have to address. … Hopefully something meaningful can happen.”

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Luca Filippi

Josef Newgarden, Luca Filippi
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, in 2015. Luca Filippi ended 21st in the No. 20 car, running the road and street course races for CFH Racing.

Luca Filippi, No. 20 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 28th Place, 4 starts
  • 2015: 21st Place (10 starts), Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 6th, 1 Podium, 1 Top-5, 4 Top-10, 2 Laps Led, 12.4 Avg. Start, 13.9 Avg. Finish

After part-time runs with Bryan Herta Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2013 and 2014, likable Italian Luca Filippi finally got his first full part-time season as the road and street course replacement at CFH Racing, replacing Mike Conway. Having won twice last year, Conway left some decently big shoes to fill and Filippi did a fair job throughout the year more often than not.

Filippi had a slightly better grid position average than did Conway, 12.4 to 13, and was slightly better overall in the races. In 10 races (including one with double points), Filippi scored 182 points and four top-10 finishes (including one top-five). A year ago, Conway scored 252 points from 12 starts, but only two top-10 finishes (both were wins). Broken down, Conway averaged 21 points per race (about a 10th place result) and Filippi 18.2 (about 12th).

Thing was last year, Conway didn’t have a measuring stick as ECR was a single-car team. In the combined two-car CFH Racing organization, Filippi had Josef Newgarden as a teammate, and that provided a more accurate measuring stick. In their 10 races together, Newgarden finished ahead 7-3, and also qualified ahead 7-3.

Filippi felt more comfortable as the year progressed – keep in mind this was the first time he’d seen most of the tracks – and at places like Toronto and Mid-Ohio where had had past track experience, he shone brightest. It was no coincidence his lone Firestone Fast Six appearance and first career podium came at Toronto, and at Mid-Ohio he was also very quick but caught out by strategy in the race.

During the year, Filippi also had two other key moments of note, one personal and one professional. He became a dad prior to Mid-Ohio, and was embracing his newborn shortly after the race not long after. Professionally speaking, he made his oval test debut at Iowa, which was important to note in case CFH wants to continue on with him next year, as seems possible. It was a good year that planted the seed for further success in the future, provided he continues in North America.