Kevin Harvick riled at Tony Stewart portrayal in Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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JOLIET, Ill. – There’s no doubt Kevin Harvick wears his emotions on his sleeve.

Not only is he one of the most competitive drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he’s also one of the fieriest. He’s not afraid to call out another driver, nor does he back down when challenged.

Harvick has oftentimes been compared to old school drivers like Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and others who, if they couldn’t settle a disagreement on the racetrack, they’d find other ways to settle it in the pits or in the garage area with their mouths or, if it comes to it, their fists.

It’s with that same old school persona that when Harvick is asked a straight question, more often than not, he’s going to give you a straight answer back – political correctness be damned.

When asked Tuesday at Chicagoland Speedway how one of his closest friends, not to mention his boss, Tony Stewart, is doing in light of the Aug. 9 dirt track tragedy that claimed the life of young Kevin Ward Jr., Harvick was upfront and to the point.

[ RELATED: When — or will? — Tony Stewart race again? ]

Harvick has respected Stewart’s privacy and space and, while not having talked to him directly since the tragic accident between Stewart and Ward, has expressed his concern and thoughts to Stewart through intermediaries.

But Harvick still had plenty to say about how Stewart has been perceived by many, vilified by some and how others have played judge, jury and executioner, even without waiting for the results of the ongoing police investigation or knowing the true facts of what happened that fateful Saturday evening at a dirt track in upstate New York.

“I think, for me, the most frustrating part was just the fact, just the perception from a lot of unknowledgeable people about our sport in general and the perception that was given to Tony in the accident,” Harvick said.

“Obviously, it was a very tragic accident; you have someone who’s dead. But on the other side of that fence, you have somebody that I know for a fact, not (just) in my heart but I know for a fact that he’s not just going to run somebody over on purpose and say ‘this is how I’m going to handle this.'”

Harvick was at Chicagoland Speedway both Monday and Tuesday as part of a NASCAR-sanctioned official multi-team test to prepare for the opening race of the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup in less than three weeks.\

[ RELATED: Jeff Gordon on Tony Stewart: “Wish I could pat him on the back, give him a hug, talk to him ]

Harvick took the media — especially those who do not cover NASCAR on a regular basis (or have never covered motorsports as a whole) — to task for sensationalized reporting and portraying opinion that readers or viewers oftentimes interpret as fact.

“I think as you look at that and you see all the stories that have come out and all the things that they’ve put in that mix with the highlight reels of a pit crew member (being hit) on a pit stop or (a driver) getting out and throwing your helmet or whatever the case may be, they can make that highlight reel for just about every one of us that have been in this garage,” Harvick said. “At some point in time, you’ve probably hit a crew member, you’ve probably got mad and thrown something, or been in an altercation or blown up or whatever the case may be.

“But they can make that highlight reel out of everybody. It’s really just when you get into these outlets that are just looking for the controversial topic, it’s just not been right.

“That part frustrates me because I know Tony as a person. That’s been the hardest part for me to deal with.”

And while Harvick is one of the most vocal and open-speaking drivers in the Sprint Cup garage, the Stewart-Ward incident and some of the sensationalized reporting and outspoken opinions of those who don’t even regularly cover NASCAR has even forced him since then to be more cautious with what he says and who he says it to.

“You guys know the media’s never been my favorite thing to deal with,” Harvick said with a laugh, before growing serious once again.

“There’s a group of people that I feel like are fair to this sport, and it used to be the media was trying to help the sport grow,” he said. “But you get outside of that core group of media, and most of the time it’s about making a story that might cause some controversy and might stir things up so that somebody will click on their story.

“(As a driver) you just have to be very protective about what you say, what you do and how you do things, just because of how it can be spun into something that’s a lot different than what you really want to say.

“There’s just certain topics that you have to be careful with, and most everything else you can speak your mind. A lot of times, it’s better to speak than it is to not speak, just for the fact somebody can spin something in ways that they want to spin it.”

[ RELATED: Kevin Ward Jr. remembered in hometown, father lashes out at Tony Stewart ]

That’s why Harvick has both been somewhat subdued but also more straightforward in how he responds to media questions since the Stewart/Ward tragedy.

“If you speak on it and speak what you think about it and think about what you say, but still get across exactly what you mean, then your perception is taken, and I think that’s important,” he said. “It’s important to speak and speak about what you think is right and wrong because that’s your opinion.”

Harvick knows he’ll talk to Stewart when the latter feels the time is right. And it won’t just be Harvick; there’s plenty of drivers, fellow team owners and even NASCAR officials that have yet to talk to Stewart, giving him all the time and space he needs, just like Harvick has done.

But Harvick did say that what happened to Stewart has had a profound impact upon himself and other drivers, particularly those who dabble in other forms of motorsports in their spare time, much like the way Stewart likes racing sprint cars away from NASCAR. Unfortunately, in light of the circumstances of what happened to Ward, Stewart may very well have raced his last sprint car race.

“That’s one reason why we don’t do that stuff anymore because sometimes when you go to those racetracks, you kind of wind up with a target on your back,” Harvick said. “That’s just unwarranted but it’s also the target on your back that everybody wants to make a name for themselves.

“Whoever that guy (big-name racer) is that’s there running those races is the guy they want to make that name with.”

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Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”

Sam Posey previews 2017 with ‘The Winds of Change’ (VIDEO)

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As the 2017 kicks off from Australia, our resident poet laureate Sam Posey has penned his latest essay on what’s to come ahead of the new year.

Here’s a look ahead to the new season, with Posey’s “The Winds of Change” looking at the vast transformation in the sport that occurred over the winter, from the change in ownership, to the change in cars, to the change in the lineups… and to the change in the pecking order.

An archive of Posey’s 2016 essays are linked here.