When — or will — Tony Stewart ever race again?

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Amidst news that Tony Stewart will not race this weekend at Bristol, as well as a grassroots campaign is building support for Stewart, including plans to stand up and cheer for him during Lap 14 (Stewart’s race car number) of Saturday night’s race at Bristol, one question still remains:

When or will Stewart ever race again?

This is strictly my opinion, but it would appear likely at the very least that Stewart will not return behind the wheel of his No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet until the current investigation by Ontario County (NY) sheriff’s deputies into the tragic sprint car accident that killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. is completed.

Sheriff Philip C. Povero said early last week that the investigation would likely take up to two weeks.

If that timing is correct, we should have some kind of conclusion and report on the tragic wreck by the early to middle part of next week.

If Stewart is found not to be culpable in the accident, it would seem one of the most logical venues for his return to racing would be the Oral-B USA 500 on Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Again, this is strictly speculation and my opinion.

One of Stewart’s biggest sponsors, not to mention one of his closest friends, Bass Pro Shops and company founder and president Johnny Morris, have a long history with Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Atlanta market is also very significant in Morris’ corporate structure.

If and when Stewart is going to come back to Sprint Cup racing, he’d do well to surround himself with as many friends and sponsors as he can, making Atlanta the perfect venue to do so.

Stewart and Morris have more than just a driver-sponsor relationship. They’re very close friends, fishing buddies and more. If anyone will have Stewart’s back from a sponsor’s and friend’s standpoint, Morris would be it.

What’s more, Stewart has a strong performance record at AMS: In 26 Sprint Cup starts, he has three wins, 10 top-10 and 15 top-10 finishes. He’s said many times that it’s one of his favorite tracks on the circuit.

There’s another bit of logic for Stewart to return to racing at Atlanta: if he were to come back for the final Chase qualifying race at Richmond, his presence would likely cause a significant distraction from the task at hand of naming 16 drivers to make up the expanded Chase field.

Likewise and ditto for Stewart returning to the Cup series for the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway: It would distract and detract from the beginning of NASCAR’s yearly marquee event.

That’s why Atlanta makes the most sense.

Now, granted, Stewart may very well just take the rest of the season off. If that were to be the case, it’s unlikely that any of his supporters would blame him. I know I wouldn’t.

But at the same time, what’s one of the first things doctors, psychologists and other experts advise those who’ve been involved in serious car wrecks (that oftentimes include fatalities)?

“Get back in the car and start driving again.”

That’s the same logic for Stewart. Sure, he’s obviously grieving greatly. He has not made a public statement since the morning of the Watkins Glen race, not more than 12 hours or so after the tragic incident that killed Ward.

Since then, there’s been absolutely nothing from Stewart in terms of what he’s saying, thinking or feeling. We’re left to our own devices to assume what he’s going through, how he’s mourning Ward and how he’s dealing with the resulting grief and fallout from arguably the biggest tragedy Stewart has ever known.

He’s likely keeping quiet for two reasons. First, he’s allowing the Ward family to grieve and mourn their son and brother. Even though Ward was buried last week, the wounds are still running deep – and likely will for a long, long time.

Second, it would not be a surprise that Stewart’s lawyers have advised him not to make any public statements until the crash investigation is over.

That’s a logical possibility, given that whatever Stewart might have to say could potentially be used against him in either a criminal case (if he’s charged by authorities) or civil suit.

It’s not surprising that Stewart missed the Sprint Cup races at both Watkins Glen and Michigan this past Sunday. And as much as he loves to race there, it’s equally not going to be a surprise that Stewart will once again not race at Bristol this Saturday night (just like at Michigan, Jeff Burton will replace Stewart in the No. 14 at Bristol).

But come Atlanta, if there’s any place where he’ll likely feel the most love and support of any remaining track on the circuit this season, that super-fast 1.5-mile oval will likely be the most welcoming locale for Stewart.

Some fans fear that perhaps we’ve seen the last of Stewart behind the wheel, that he’ll retire as an active driver across all racing platforms.

I disagree, nor do I see that happening.

Rather, Stewart would be well-served if he did get back in a race car again. He owes it to his fans, he owes it to his sponsors, he owes it to his company and its hundreds of employees. He also owes it to himself.

And in a way, he owes it to the memory of Kevin Ward Jr.

Whether he was killed by his own mistake or not, Ward was a racer first and foremost. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’m sure Stewart would tell Ward it was nothing more than a tragic accident and that he owed it to himself to keep racing.

It’s the same for Stewart.

That’s why Atlanta makes the most sense for his return. It’s far enough away from the original incident, it comes after the investigation result will likely be made public and a growing number of fans want to see Stewart race again.

Of course, if the investigation does find negligence or culpability on Stewart’s part, then it’s likely we’ve seen him race for the final time of his career.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Hamilton confused by lack of pace in Russia F1 qualifying

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Lewis Hamilton was left confused and disappointed after finishing half a second behind pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel in Formula 1 qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton arrived in Russia looking to cut the gap to Ferrari driver Vettel in the championship standings after falling seven points behind last time out in Bahrain.

Vettel rallied to take his first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi, while Hamilton finished half a second back in fourth place, lagging behind Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton has long stated his desire to have Ferrari fighting with Mercedes at the front of the pace, but he was disappointed not to be able to fight Vettel for pole in Russia.

“This means we have a real race. It’s just a shame today, I definitely wasn’t at my optimum,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the session.

“Normally I’m a lot quicker than I was today. I need to go and work out why and if I can do anything.

“Obviously I can’t change the car, so I’ll see what I can do tomorrow.”

Speaking in Mercedes’ post-qualifying release, Hamilton said that he is hopeful of making use of the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom to catch and pass the Ferrari driver, with Mercedes bidding to maintain a 100 per cent record at the track.

“Sochi isn’t the easiest track to follow on, but there are long straights which should offer the opportunity to move forward. That’s our goal,” Hamilton said.

“I’m on the dirty side of the grid so I haven’t done myself any favours off the start. But that was the best job I could do today. We’ve got a real race to look forward to.

“There’s no point being upset. We’ll channel our positive energy and hopefully Sunday will be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Q3 traffic costs Raikkonen shot at first F1 pole in nine years

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Kimi Raikkonen was left lamenting traffic at the start of his final qualifying run in Sochi after narrowly missing out on his first Formula 1 pole in almost nine years.

Raikkonen last started a grand prix from pole in France back in 2008, but sat on provisional pole after the first Q3 runs had been completed in Russia on Saturday.

The final laps saw Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel improve to wrestle pole away, with a mistake sending Raikkonen wide at the final corner, meaning he was unable to improve.

Raikkonen was left to settle for second place, 0.059 seconds off Vettel’s time, with the Finn saying his inability to get his tires up to temperature early was the main issue.

“Obviously the aim is to be in the front. The feeling has been more better this weekend,” Raikkonen explained.

“Now we just got some traffic on our out lap in the last set and couldn’t really make the tires work as well as the first run. It was a bit more trickier. They were thereabouts and I just about got it back in the last corner, but obviously didn’t pay off.

“I’m happier than previous qualifyings, but obviously we had all the tools to be in the front today. One-two for the team is not bad.”

While Raikkonen was unable to take pole, Ferrari did capture its first front-row lock-out since the race at Magny-Cours in 2008. Raikkonen took pole that day ahead of teammate Felipe Massa, with the latter going on to win the race.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Vettel lauds ‘phenomenal’ Ferrari F1 car after taking Russia pole

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise on the Ferrari Formula 1 team after taking his second pole position for the Italian marque in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel edged teammate Kimi Raikkonen by just 0.059 seconds in the final stage of qualifying to grab his first pole position since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, heading up a Ferrari one-two, the first since France 2008.

The result saw Ferrari end Mercedes’ 18-race streak of pole positions and continue its impressive start to the season that has seen Vettel win two of the first three races.

“I had a good start to the session to qualifying this afternoon,” Vettel explained. “I was feeling reasonably comfortable. Then I think in Q2 I lost a little bit the rhythm, so my final run in Q2 which I thought would give me enough of an idea for Q3 for the final segment would put me in place, but it went wrong. I locked up and lost a bit the rhythm.

“Then in Q3, the first run was not really tidy, so I left it to the end. Then I got a good lap in and improved in the final sector, made up some time from the lap before. I knew it would be tight, I knew also that I would be the first one to cross the line.

“By going quicker than what I saw on the screen before with Kimi, I knew that for now I’m ahead, but then I immediately opened the radio and asked about everyone else, ‘tell me about the others!’, and then my race engineer Ricardo told me they are closing the lap, closing the lap, I said ‘yeah let me know, how are the sectors, how are the split times!’ The first one I got was Valtteri, who didn’t manage to improve, and then when I got the message that we got it, I was over the moon.”

Vettel thanked the Ferrari team that had put together the SF70H car, but stressed that there are no points awarded for Saturday.

“Big thank you to the team, I think the car was phenomenal this afternoon. It really was a pleasure to take a seat and go around with low fuel and just try and push it to the limit,” Vettel said.

“If you have rhythm here it’s just fantastic. Glad I got it back, and big thanks to the team. It’s a team effort and a great result for us to have both cars on the front row. It’s only part of the job. The main job is tomorrow, but for now, yeah, it’s an important step.

“We managed to improve a little bit. Maybe the circuit came our way as well. But it’s a very good result and I’m sure everyone is very happy and very proud, so we’ll enjoy that, but in a couple of hours obviously start focusing on the race.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Banter, competitiveness fuel Helio, TK in 20th IndyCar seasons

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The word “retire” is often thrown around to describe Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, as the longtime friends and rivals are now almost a quarter of the way through their 20th seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And then you consider Castroneves took the pole Friday night in his No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet with a new track record at Phoenix International Raceway at 194.905 mph average speed – again, on a one-mile oval – and Kanaan led the way among the 13 Hondas on the grid in his No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and you need to leave the “retire” word out of the conversation.

One of the great aspects about them both is that while they’ve endured through so much change in IndyCar, the series, their competitiveness, banter and great form is still as evident now as when they were kids being groomed for success in the Indy Lights series, as teammates for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports.

Since 1998, IndyCar’s been through a boatload of different sponsors, drivers, teams, chassis, engine manufacturers, series chiefs, marketing firms, buzzwords, rivals, controversies, question marks and fantastic finishes.

But this pair of Brazilians, friends since before they were teenagers, has been a guarantee to endure.

Castroneves, Kanaan, the Borg-Warner Trophy and Gerould. Photo: IndyCar

Fittingly, then, in a city whose track’s history with North American open-wheel racing dates to the 1960s, the weekend kicked off with an homage to the two Brazilians at the Heard Museum, moderated by veteran broadcaster Gary Gerould.

These two hesitate to use the word “old” even though they are both north of 40 years old – and as Dario Franchitti joked, “no one knows how old Tony really is” – yet continue to kick ass on a weekly basis.

6 Sep 1997: Brazilian drivers Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves confers during the Toyota Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in Monterrey, California. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

Before their CART and IndyCar careers started, only one of them was going to win the 1997 Indy Lights title, both in their second seasons. And although Castroneves – then hyphenated as Castro-Neves – held a three-two win advantage, Kanaan won the championship by just four points.

Not that Castroneves thought it was all fair and square, as he joked going into Thursday night.

“I didn’t win the championship because I didn’t finish where I needed to,” he told NBC Sports. “On the celebration lap, the cool down lap, I saw something stuck on his hula hoop – or roll hoop. I stopped and after that we talked about it, ‘Tony, I meant to ask you a question, you’ve got something stuck?’

“Man, I’m telling you we didn’t have HANS devices at the time. To try to disrupt the whole rhythm and get a caution I think he was going to throw his neck support! His plan didn’t work out – he got stuck. So it was funny!”

Kanaan, who won the championship over him, noted how intense the battle between the two really was because they were unsure what would happen if only one of them made it to IndyCar.

7 Jun 1997: Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves of Brazil in the Lola Buick T97/20 for the Tasman Motorsports Racing Team during the ITT Automotive Detroit Grand Prix at Bell Isle in Detroit, Michigan. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

“Probably the best was the year we were going for the Indy Lights championship in ’97,” Kanaan recalled to NBC Sports during this year’s St. Petersburg weekend.

“That was ‘make it or break it’ for us. We actually got told that year that whoever won the championship was going to get a chance in IndyCar. At the time, in our heads, it was only going to be one of us. And we were going head-to-head. We had the same equipment. I ended up winning, but we both moved up.”

They survived that run in Horne’s team’s base of Columbus, Ohio – as the two of them joked Thursday night, there was not much to do – and then were in a sense lucky to both be able to advance into IndyCar the following year.

“Without Steve, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” Kanaan admitted. “It was a combination of Philip Morris in Brazil and him, But, he was the one who had a good team that picked us. We went to a test and it was ten guys and he hand-picked me and Helio out of those ten guys and gave us the opportunity. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”

Not that Castroneves would be sold short either. He pushed through in that aforementioned test at Firebird Raceway’s East road course – south of Phoenix – with a rib injury. While he exited the car in pain, the determination and pace shown was enough to justify Horne’s faith.

Horne was among many who paid tribute to the two Thursday night in a prerecorded message, and also gave them stick for when they collided on the first lap of an Indy Lights race in Toronto in 1996. Castroneves led Kanaan in a 1-2 in Toronto a year later, which was a welcome payback.

Andretti Green Racing’s fabulous four – Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan – capture the top four spots in the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg April 3. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Others included two of Kanaan’s past teammates in Franchitti and Bryan Herta, part of Andretti Autosport (then Andretti Green’s Racing) fabled four-car lineup in the mid-2000s, and Franchitti’s old teammate and current NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy. “PT” had perhaps the best one-liner of the night when he took the opportunity to ask Castroneves how he was taking care of his 2002 Borg-Warner Trophy, as Tracy always felt as though he and not Castroneves was the rightful winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS – MAY 26: Helio Castroneves pits his Marlboro Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the 86th Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 26, 2002. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The one shock bit of news that came out Thursday night had nothing to do with the on-track product these two drivers have delivered. It came with the off-track product Castroneves uses to keep his hair as magical as it is.

“Bedheaded,” he laughed, which caught most of the room off guard. “It doesn’t take as long as you think to get it ready. People think it takes a long time but it’s quick.”

The two drivers reflected on their careers. Castroneves has spent all but two seasons with Team Penske; that incredible 18-year run, and counting, came after a year apiece with the midfield Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams in the 1990s, where he scored his first career podiums. Sadly, with Tony Bettenhausen Jr. having died in an early 2000 plane crash and Carl Hogan dying a year later, his first two owners have long since been unable to see his career rise. His Penske opportunity also arose from tragedy with Greg Moore’s 1999 fatal accident in Fontana, but having been in the right place at the right time, he seized his chance.

Kanaan, meanwhile, had his heyday at Andretti after five stop-start years with Tasman, McDonald’s Championship Racing (a Forsythe satellite team, where he won his first race in 1999 at Michigan) and Mo Nunn Racing that always saw him showcase a lot of potential, but not consistent results. His post-Andretti career saw his attempt to lift KV Racing Technology to the top of the ascendancy, and did when he and the KVSH Racing effort broke through in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 – a result, as it turned out, which extended the careers of both entities when it was possible mid-2013 could have been the end for both.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: 2013 Indianapolis 500 Champion Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the Hydroxycut KV Racing Technology-SH Racing Chevrolet, hugs the Borg Warner Trophy at the yard of bricks during the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation and Champions Portrait Session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kanaan earned his first Indy 500 victory by winning the 97th running of the race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

A late career renaissance has occurred with Chip Ganassi Racing, Kanaan having been meant to be added in a fourth car for 2014 but shifted to become Franchitti’s replacement in the No. 10 car once injuries forced the champion Scot into retirement.

Castroneves holds the wins, poles and Indianapolis 500 victories edge, but Kanaan’s got two championships – one each in IndyCar and Indy Lights – that remain elusive for Castroneves.

Yes, they haven’t won since 2014 and yes, the questions are always whether they should move on and provide an opportunity for the younger crowd to step up to two of the primo, marquee seats in IndyCar.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan of Brazil pose on the finish line with the Borg-Warner trophy during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

But the younger drivers who have raced against them over the years will likely tell you that if you’ve beaten Castroneves and Kanaan, you’ve beaten two of the best. Doing so at Indy, where both drivers have starred and have a combined four wins, is even more of a successful feather in the cap.

Said Kanaan about his future, “In my mind, I’m still very young. I take care of myself a lot. I think I’m still in the game. I think I still I had a decent season last year, despite not getting a win. So, as long as I feel this way, I’m going to keep going. So, how I feel…I feel great.

“We’re raising the bar, between some guys in IndyCar and some guys in NASCAR, with how much we do nowadays to keep ourselves in shape. So, as long my reflexes and my health allow me to do it and I still have the motivation to stay away from the house…once this starts to weigh over me then it will be time to start thinking about that. But I still have the desire, especially with two young kids at home, I want to be on the road!”

And Castroneves added, “I was talking to someone else regarding our lives. We’re friends. We’re competing for the same job. The same seat. We were in separate parallel series, we were teammates, then we had a rivalry, and we have had all these scenarios together.

“But one thing I feel is awesome, we both work really hard and achieve the goals we’re looking for. And we still get it done!”