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When — or will — Tony Stewart ever race again?


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

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with a look at Simon Pagenaud’s first season at Team Penske.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 5th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 59 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 8.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 11th Place, Best Finish 3rd, 1 Pole, 2 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 132 Laps Led, 5.2 Avg. Start, 10.6 Avg. Finish

The 2015 season was always going to be a weird one for Simon Pagenaud, in his first season with Team Penske, adapting and adjusting to being with what’s widely regarded as one of the best if not the best teams in the sport. From a career standpoint he needed to move on from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, where he overachieved for three seasons. And given what became of the Honda aero kit this year, having a Chevrolet at his disposal was always going to be a benefit.

In actuality, Pagenaud didn’t have a bad year, but it was one where the burden of expectation probably hurt his overall stats more than the reality of the situation.

Let’s face facts – he’d finished in the top five in points each of his first three seasons back in IndyCar the last two years, won four races and been in championship contention before. Take all that, apply it to Team Penske and you’d assume wins and title contention would follow, but it didn’t. Still, it was a new team, a fourth team, and that took time to gel.

His qualifying was dynamic, which went against his career form and was markedly improved. His average leapt from 8.6 to 5.2 this year, which was third best in the field. The problem? It trailed two of his three teammates, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, and was only one spot clear of Juan Pablo Montoya.

And then – and there is no easy way to put this – there were his finishes. In 12 of 16 races this season, Pagenaud finished worse than he started. For a driver renowned for making the most of his circumstances on race day, often times things went south when all the marbles, all the points were on the line. Some you could put down to strategy or particularly in the later part of the year, sampling different setups to aid his title-contending teammates.

There were highlights, in particular his speed at the three 500-mile races. Pagenaud was probably the quickest of the four Penske entries at Indianapolis, scored the pole in Fontana and also starred in Pocono, but he didn’t have results to back it up in any of the three. Contact at Indy halted what was certainly winning potential. He also scored a pair of thirds at Detroit race one and Mid-Ohio, although those were cases where he was lucky rather than good.

It was hard to view Pagenaud’s season positively on the whole because you know his potential and ability hasn’t gone missing. But finishing 11th in points when your three teammates end second, third and fifth is definitely a tough pill to swallow, and an early motivator to make the fast Frenchman a top comeback driver in 2016.

Nicky Hayden announces World Superbikes move

ALCANIZ, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Nicky Hayden of USA and Aspar Team MotoGP rounds the bend during the MotoGP of Spain - Free Practice at Motorland Aragon Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Alcaniz, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden will leave the series at the end of the season ahead of a move into the World Superbike Championship in 2016, it has been announced.

Hayden has raced in MotoGP since 2003 and is currently the only American rider racing in the series, but has struggled to match the form of his early years, scoring just 13 points in 2015.

It had been rumored that Hayden would be walking away from MotoGP at the end of the season for some time, but this has now been confirmed in a statement from WorldSBK.

Hayden will join Honda’s factory team in the rival series, racing alongside Michael van der Mark. The 34-year-old will bid to become the first rider to win both MotoGP and WorldSBK titles.

“Well, my next stop is Superbike with Honda! I’m very excited, obviously, to stick with Honda; it’s where I’ve had the most success in my career,” Hayden said.

“World Superbikes is a championship that I followed closely as a kid when a lot of American riders were fighting at the front. It just seems like the right time and the right team to go with.

“I know I’ve got a lot to learn and it’s going to be a big challenge, but also I’m very motivated to start and learn what I can.

“I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has supported me through my MotoGP career. We had a good run but now it’s time to move on and try something different.”

Hayden’s departure acts as another blow to MotoGP’s profile in the United States, which has seen a downturn in recent years.

The exit of Ben Spies from Yamaha in 2013 was followed by the loss of the race at Laguna Seca the same year, while last month, it was confirmed that Indianapolis would not be returning to the calendar in 2016, leaving just one US round on the schedule.