NASCAR: Joe Gibbs hopeful for eventual return of Tony Stewart

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Since his involvement in a fatal sprint car incident on Aug. 9, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart has been largely in seclusion.

He has not competed in the last two Sprint Cup events at Watkins Glen (replaced by Regan Smith) and Michigan (replaced by Jeff Burton), and several of his peers – including Jeff Gordon and Stewart Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick – have said that they haven’t been able to speak with him.

But team owner Joe Gibbs, whose No. 20 squad won the 2002 and 2005 Sprint Cup championships with Stewart behind the wheel, believes that “Smoke” will eventually come back.

“We all love Tony, we love what he did for us here,” Gibbs has said to USA Today’s Jeff Gluck. “We know he’s a racer’s racer and he’s big for our sport. I would love to have a chance to speak with him at some point and encourage him.”

Gibbs hailed his former driver as a man of “great courage,” but also acknowledged the Aug. 9 tragedy as “a horrible thing to have happen” for all involved – including Stewart and the family of Kevin Ward Jr.

Ward, 20, was struck and killed by Stewart’s car after attempting to confront him under caution following an on-track incident between the two. The young racer was laid to rest last Thursday.

“This is just hard to go through, so everybody is going to have to prayerfully work their way through it,” said Gibbs, who also mentioned to Gluck that he’s been hesitant to reach out to Stewart because he’s been told by the driver’s representatives that he was taking some time for himself.

Last weekend at Michigan, Stewart Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said that Stewart himself will make the final decision on when he’ll climb back inside his No. 14 SHR Chevrolet.

Additionally, Frood said that Stewart was “surrounded…by his closest friends and family” and that his current location “is of a private nature.”

As of now, no official announcement has yet been made by SHR on Stewart’s status for Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Burton, his most recent substitute in the No. 14, told NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA yesterday that he and SHR have not talked about him filling in again at Bristol.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”