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

Another day, another photo finish in MX-5 Cup at Road America

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The first of three sports car races held Saturday at Road America featured a familiar ending in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires: a photo finish.

For the third time in four races, a margin of victory of less than a tenth of a second was all that decided the race. This time it was defending series champion Nathanial Sparks of Sick Sideways Racing, edging Atlanta Speedwerks’ Todd Lamb by 0.0468 of a second, for the victory.

Sparks’ win slots in second in the three photo finishes. Friday’s race one saw Patrick Gallagher beat Bryan Ortiz by 0.0263 of a second. At Indianapolis last weekend, Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 of a second.

Sparks, also known as “Sparky,” explained how he made the move for the win.

“I fell back a little and I put my head down and really drove hard and I found myself back up at the front,” said Sparks. “Ortiz, Gallagher, and all those guys were driving so hard and there was battling for position and jockeying and moving around. I had a good run coming up out of the last corner and I managed to make my Mazda motor just power me up and just drove it home. It was super excited bringing it home for my Sick Sideways team today.”

Lamb, who came up short, offered his take: “That was a lot of fun. It’s my first podium of the season. We’re starting to get these cars figured out and starting to figure out who is going to work with us and who’s not. It’s been a lot of fun and a good learning experience this weekend, I’m looking forward to more!”

Gallagher led the standings by 39 points over Sparks heading into the weekend and extended the lead with his win on Friday.

“It was definitely more chaotic today, nobody wanted to work together like they did yesterday,” said Gallagher. “Everyone thought they had to be in second, but they didn’t realize they needed to be there until the last lap. Everybody was trying to get to second place from lap one, people were leaning on me and I just had to be careful. I got shoved around a little bit, but it’s a long season, and the championship points we got here this weekend are most important.”

The McCumbee McAleer Racing driver finished third today, his season worst result (hardly a bad thing for the Thornville, Ohio native) and still leads the points as the series heads next to the streets of Toronto, July 14-16, for Rounds 7 and 8. That is also part of a Verizon IndyCar Series weekend.

Fong (Bentley), James (Panoz) score Saturday PWC Road America wins

Photos: PWC
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Pirelli World Challenge has returned to full Sprint race action at Road America today with its GT class, while the GTS class was joined by a handful of invitational entries in the TC class for a pair of races at the 4.014-mile circuit.

GT

Adderly Fong, the Hong Kong-based driver, has captured his first career PWC victory in the No. 88 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3.

It’s Bentley’s first PWC victory since 2015, when Chris Dyson won here at the same circuit. The win came after Fong scored the pole, his second straight and Bentley’s third straight at the track. It also comes on the same day as Bentley won the Paul Ricard 1000km in the Blancpain Endurance Series, with Fong’s SprintX co-driver Vincent Abril co-driving for Bentley Team M-Sport with Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet (below).

Fong had a pair of podiums here last year and with the Bentley expected to do well at this circuit, the pressure was on to deliver.

“My team manager told me if I didn’t win, I didn’t get to have dinner,” Fong joked in the post-race press conference. “I guess I can eat tonight!”

The race-winning performance in the 50-minute race was delivered after Fong collided with Johnny O’Connell on the opening lap, Fong on the inside pitching O’Connell on the outside into a spin exiting Turn 5. Fong apologized for the contact, but was not penalized by PWC race officials.

From there, Fong controlled the pace over Patrick Long, in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, with both drivers managing their Pirelli tires from there.

Long got close, but never close enough to make a passing attempt of Fong for the win. Nonetheless, after finishes of third, first and second in the first three races, Long’s fourth straight Sprint podium brought him forth the Sprint points lead.

Michael Cooper completed the podium in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R, continuing his consistent season in pursuit of an overall PWC championship combining both the Sprint and SprintX components of the calendar. Cooper and Jordan Taylor won the lone SprintX race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park this year while Cooper posted his first Sprint podium of the season.

Daniel Mancinelli had a rare but welcome trouble-free race in his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to finish fourth, with the first of the RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3s, Peter Kox’s No. 93 car, scoring a top-five finish on RealTime’s home soil near its Saukville, Wis. base.

O’Connell rebounded to eighth overall after his first lap spin in his No. 3 Cadillac.

In 13th, James Sofronas won the GTA class in his No. 14 GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R. Yuki Harata won the GT Cup class in a Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2.

GTS

Elkhart Lake, WI – Jun 23, 2017: The Pirelli World Challenge racers take to the track on Pirelli tires during the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix at Road America presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI.

Ian James has scored the Panoz Avezzano GT’s maiden victory, as the new car took the win in Saturday’s combined GTS and TC race.

It comes after a series of close calls, a near win at Lime Rock Park before engine failure and its first podium there as well. The Tom Milner-led team has a series of holdovers who have worked on Don Panoz’s most recent creation, the DeltaWing, and have transitioned over to a more normal looking sports car.

James dominated the 50-minute race while the battle was more behind him for second place, featuring Jeff Courtney’s No. 99 JCR Motorsports Maserati GT4 in his home race and Lawson Aschenbach in the No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R.

Aschenbach, the championship leader, drove smart to get another podium finish with Courtney just behind despite several attempts.

They held off a late charge from Austin Versteeg, PWC debutante, in the No. 13 ANSA Motorsports KTM X-BOW GT4. The talented teenager out of Sandy, Utah has shifted to racing Lamborghinis this year after racing prototypes but was now in Alain Nadal’s entry this weekend.

Cody Ellsworth, in his No. 111 RacerInk Porsche Cayman, won the TC class.

MRTI: Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda title tilt heats up at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – For the first time in the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season, the gloves are officially off between two title combatants, after an intense, high-pressure weekend split in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

For Victor Franzoni, a win and a second place served as a disappointing weekend for Juncos Racing, because even despite starting last in Saturday’s race two, he very nearly could have won.

Quite by contrast, second and first for Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin was even better than he might have hoped for, with a clear pace deficit to Franzoni this weekend but able to doggedly hold him off in race two.

Franzoni dominated Friday’s race one, which was pretty straightforward. Still though, after red flags caught Franzoni out before qualifying race two, he wasn’t as happy as he usually is.

“The quali was unlucky. We tried a strategy and it didn’t work!” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “But the whole team and I were like, ‘Let’s forget the quali. Let’s focus on what we can do today after quali one.’

“Juncos Racing gave me the great car. It was a big fight. After I got by Anthony, I could go away. It was good. Everything was fine. This was my first win in Road America. Tomorrow is gonna be fun, but I’m really confident. I think we can fight for the win tomorrow.”

Martin put up a valiant fight early in the race but was unable to hold onto it.

“I thought if I’d do anything it’d be the first few laps. as I gave that a red hot shot,” Martin told NBC Sports. “We battled quite hard. I knew he had a better and quicker car than me. I consolidated that I would be in second, looked after my tires. It’ll hurt your tires. I jumped into second and looked after the tires.”

Saturday’s race two, meanwhile, was a barnburner. The second 30-minute race of the weekend saw three yellow flags but Franzoni on a charge from 15th up to second.

Franzoni made it to third by Lap 4 of the eventual 11-lap race. But while the first yellow aided his charge and brought him just two car lengths away from Martin on the first restart, the next two yellows interrupted that process because he’d need to catch up Martin and attempt to pass him again.

“All the unlucky came together,” Franzoni said Saturday. “The race being 40 versus 30. Starting last. Three yellow flags! Everything came down to this not being my race.”

The Brazilian said he still could have hunted down Martin from last on the grid even without the aid of a yellow flag.

“I think with green the whole race, it was possible to do. The car was really really fast. When the first yellow came it was OK, and I thought, ‘Now it’s easier,’ but not the other ones!”

But it was after the restarts that Franzoni thought Martin drove over-aggressively, making his car wider to keep the faster Franzoni behind him.

At Turn 5 in particular, the two drivers had one moment where they both went in deep, overshot the corner entry, and Martin and Franzoni both ran wide on exit. There was another moment exiting Turn 5 where Franzoni got a run up the hill to the inside while Martin moved across to defend there.

The two drivers explained their respective vantage points.

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I was almost four wheels in the grass. He didn’t give me space,” Franzoni alleged. “There were two times in Turn 5, and I tried outside. He threw the car on me. It was not so nice.”

Martin said, “Knowing that Race Control and everyone is watching, you don’t want to get caught out and make a mistake. So I tried to make it difficult for him to get past me. We both went extremely deep into Turn 5, and we both overshot it.

“We’ve raced each other a few years (in the Mazda Road to Indy). We’re not gonna do anything stupid to each other. I tried to keep him behind me. Things happen. But nothing happened that catastrophic. It was a tough race for both of us. It worked out well for both of us.”

Martin, who led the entirety of the second race, had to exert some key mental training to stay focused for the restarts. With caution laps being so long at the 4.014-mile circuit, Martin knew he had to keep his head in the game.

“It felt long. All the safety car laps take so long! I looked at the dash and thought, ‘It’s a 5-minute lap, we at Spa or something?’ It was pretty crazy the whole race. Mentally very difficult, but we were able to keep him behind.”

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course comes next the end of July for Pro Mazda after another month break in this season’s condensed schedule.

And it’ll be an important weekend. With three races and Franzoni only seven points clear of Martin, 174-167, it will be imperative to maximize the mark.

Martin enters high on confidence having completed a triple-race sweep in USF2000 with Cape there last year, and with Cape having also delivered a weekend double in Pro Mazda with Nico Jamin driving.

“We know we have a great car at Mid-Ohio but Juncos does as well,” Martin said. “He’s had a half a championship of experience in Pro Mazda – this half – but the team are pushing me to my limit. They’ll implement the correct driving style.

“Mid-Ohio really suits me. I love that track. It suits my style a lot more than these last two tracks.”

Juncos, though, always fields a strong car at Mid-Ohio too and Franzoni will be hoping his car will be just as strong there.

“I had such good equipment. I could have won this race,” Franzoni said. “It’s OK. We’re still leading the championship. I’m disappointed because we had a really big gap and really good car.

“I thought we could use this weekend better to get all the points. It wasn’t so difficult. We’re in good shape but I’m sad because we didn’t win.”

MRTI Road America Notebook: Saturday

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Saturday was a busy day for the all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with each contesting races in the early afternoon. The day saw three dominating victories, along with an epic drive from one of the championship leaders.

 

Indy Lights: Leist Dominates Race 1

The momentum Matheus Leist had built in the month of May carried over into the month of June, as he led every lap from pole to dominate Race 1 at Road America for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. He fended off challenges from Neil Alberico and Ryan Norman in turn 1 after the start and slowly began to pull away from the field, eventually winning by over six seconds.

“The car today was perfect,” said an elated Leist, who will start second in Race 2. “The moment was very good. I’m very happy for this team working so hard. The car is fast in qualifying and fast in the race as well. Really looking for tomorrow.”

Santi Urrutia emerged in second after a tough fight with Ryan Norman and Kyle Kaiser in the early laps, with Kaiser rounding out the podium in third, ahead of Norman in fourth.

Urrutia, despite the strong finish, was very frustrated afterward, citing a simple lack of pace that kept him from challenging for the win. “I’m struggling as I don’t have the speed,” he lamented. “That’s the only thing. Long day to improve the car. Definitely we’re not quick. We want to keep gaining some speed and developing for the championship.”

Kaiser, meanwhile, continued the consistency that has vaulted him into the championship lead. But, as he explained afterward, Kaiser is not playing prevent. “I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful,” he asserted. “When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year.”

Of note: Neil Alberico was shuffled nearly outside the top ten after running wide at Turn 1 on the opening lap, but eventually rebounded to finish seventh. Colton Herta and Aaron Telitz, meanwhile, endured very difficult races that saw neither in contention at any time, and both finished outside of the top ten. Telitz was 11th and Herta 12th at the checkered flag, with Herta even spinning late in the going.

Results are below. Race 2 rolls off Sunday at 9:45 a.m. (8:45 local time) and will air on NBCSN at 11:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying report for Race 2 can be found here.

 

Pro Mazda: Martin Withstands Franzoni Charge for Race 2 Win

Anthony Martin needed to fend off a hungry Victory Franzoni for the Race 2 win in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Victory Franzoni may have had the drive of the year in Race 2 for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, but it was Anthony Martin who went to victory lane. Martin led every lap from the pole, while Franzoni ripped through the field after starting 15th to finish second.

Franzoni was up to third in the early laps when a caution for a spinning Brendan Puderbach allowed him to close the gap to Martin. He then moved to second on the subsequent restart and immediately began pressuring Martin for the lead.

Martin had to endure two more restarts, one coming on the final lap, to hold off the fast-moving Franzoni, but he was able to consistently thwart all challenges to take his third win of the 2017 season. Nikita Lastochkin rounded out the podium in third.

Martin explained afterward that he kept Franzoni behind him by focusing forward. “I got a really good start and I kept that gap for a good while until the safety car came out and bunched everyone up. And at that point, I saw the standard white and purple car in third place and thought ‘OK, he’s definitely got pace.’ I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” said the Australian.

Franzoni, despite the strong run, lamented losing points to Martin in the championship. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second. I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash,” he said.

Results are below. Franzoni now leads Martin by a scant seven points, with Pro Mazda’s next event coming at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 28-29.

 

USF2000: Rinus Veekay Sweeps the Weekend

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) had the broom out in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda as he swept the weekend at Road America. The 16-year-old Dutchman outlasted challenges from David Malukas, Calvin Ming, and Oliver Askew to dominate Race 2. It is also the third consecutive race weekend in which a driver won both races, with Oliver Askew doing so at the previous rounds at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

“It’s great. I won a lot of points for the championship standings, and I’m happy with that. I’m happy I could show the speed. My first two wins in one weekend, it’s great!” said a jubilant Veekay.

Ming managed to get ahead of Askew for second, while Askew rebounded from Friday’s  17th-place finish to end up third. They moved up at the expense of Malukas, who had been running second, but spun off into the gravel at turn 14 on the final lap.

Results are below (note: Ming finished second, with Malukas credited with 12th). Veekay’s victories, coupled with Askew’s struggles, bring Veekay to within 23 points of the championship lead. The next race for USF2000 is July 9 at Iowa Speedway, the only oval on their 2017 calendar.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.