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.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”