(Photo: Cyndee Bonkowski)

Melancholy return: Tony Stewart goes back to Iowa, site of worst crash of his racing career

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Being back in Iowa this week has been bittersweet for three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

While he considers the Hawkeye State almost like a second home because of all the time he’s spent there over his career, particularly when it comes to sprint car racing, Iowa also brings back some horrendous memories.

It was on August 5, 2013 that Stewart suffered the worst injury of his roughly three-decade racing career, incurring several fractures in his right leg.

One year and a day later, Stewart was back in Iowa for Wednesday’s charity go-kart event at Slideways Karting Center, about two miles north of Knoxville Speedway, where the annual Knoxville Nationals are being held throughout this weekend.

Stewart admitted that he flew back to Iowa after last Sunday’s race at Pocono, where he was caught up in the big 13-car wreck.

He then returned to the same site where he suffered the injury, Southern Iowa Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

In a way, it was a cathartic return for Stewart.

“I went back out to Oskaloosa for the race,” Stewart told MotorSportsTalk about watching the same event he crashed in last year, fracturing both the tibia and fibula in his right leg.

“I wasn’t going to miss it regardless,” Stewart said. “My intention was actually to run (at Oskaloosa), but I’ve run four (sprint car) races this year and haven’t raced enough to be able to run good out there yet. I need to race some more.”

Before they all headed to New York state for this weekend’s race at Watkins Glen International, Stewart was joined in Knoxville for much of the week with fellow NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, who like Stewart, are long-time sprint car drivers and fans.

“I wouldn’t miss this week for the world,” Stewart said. “I don’t think Jeff, Kasey or Kyle would, either. We’re diehards about this. We love what we do full-time, but we’re passionate about dirt racing and the Nationals.”

Surprisingly, Stewart admitted that he’s still not fully recovered from last year’s life-changing wreck.

“I thought I’d be a lot further along than I am right now,” he said. “But I’m pretty grateful to have a leg to stand on and am able to do what I still love to do. So, you’re not going to hear me complain about it.”

Rather, Stewart is focusing on not only completing his comeback, but also to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He has five races left, including Sunday’s, to make the expanded 16-driver field.

When and where will he get that elusive win?

“I don’t know,” Stewart said. “It can come anywhere, honestly. I don’t think it’s a scenario where you can throw all your eggs in one basket and say, ‘This is the one we’ve got to make happen.’

“It’s just like last week (at Pocono). We weren’t great, but it wasn’t our crash that we got involved in. We ended up in it. So, you never know what can happen.”

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.