Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Tony Stewart’s return to NASCAR may be one of hardest things he’s ever done


Baby steps.

That’s the only way Tony Stewart will be able to make his return to NASCAR, let alone to some semblance of normal life.

While he’ll be returning to the familiarity of being in a race car and around fellow drivers and race fans Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it’s almost as if he’ll be starting his career anew.

Sure, he’s a former three-time Sprint Cup champion. Sure, he’s won nearly 50 Cup races in his career.

And sure, he’s one of the most visible, outspoken and both cheered and booed drivers in the sport.

But in a sense, when he arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday, Stewart will be restarting his career from scratch.

It’s hard to imagine how Stewart will be able to climb into his race car for the first time Friday afternoon for practice with his usual confident air and somehow try to put out of his mind the August 9 tragedy that claimed the life of young driver Kevin Ward Jr.

It’s also hard to imagine how Stewart will ever return to the Smoke of old, the way his fans know and love him by.

It’s incomprehensible for probably 99.9 percent of us to understand what both the Ward family and Stewart have gone through and will continue to go through not just for the immediate future, but the rest of their respective lives.

Forget the fact that this was a tragedy that took place in a race and on a racetrack. Consider instead how so few of us have been involved in accidents that took another person’s life. How can we begin to relate to what Stewart and the Ward family are feeling?

For those that have been in an incident that’s resulted in a loss of someone else’s life, there’s no textbook on how to come back from such a tragedy. There’s no Cliff’s Notes or cheat sheet on how to return to normal – if there’s any way Stewart will be able to do that.

Instead, for everyone who has ever gone through and survived a tragedy that has involved the loss of human life, they’ve had to invariably dig down deep and follow their instinct and best judgment to go on with their lives, to go back to the person they were – or the best semblance they can muster.

There’s no on-off switch that Stewart can turn to go back to the Smoke of old. There’s no way he’ll ever be able to forget Ward’s memory or find a way to put the tragedy of that fateful August night out of his mind.

There’s also no way Stewart will likely ever stop from reflecting back on the accident, nor continue to second- and even third-guess himself to see if there was anything humanly possible he could have done to prevent the tragedy that ensued.

All of that is bad enough.

But then there’s Friday afternoon at 1 pm ET, when Stewart will face the media for the first time since the Ward accident.

Knowing the oftentimes adversarial relationship the media has had with Stewart and vice-versa in the past, it’s likely going to take every ounce of willpower in his body to contain himself and his composure Friday, to not make a flippant quip or lose his cool.

Questions are going to fly at him from all corners, queries that he’s never had to answer before.

After all, how do you describe to a friend or family member – let alone the national media – what it feels like to have been part of a tragic accident that claimed the life of such a young, aspiring racer?

Stewart is likely to be peppered in ways that he never has, let alone ever imagined. In the past, he could – and oftentimes did – snap at a reporter and abruptly call a premature end to the interview, walking away in a huff.

He can’t do that Friday. He’ll have to patiently and fully answer every question posed to him as best and honestly as he possibly can, lest an overzealous questioner attempt to try and discredit any of Stewart’s answers and draw him into a confrontation.

Frankly, Stewart will face nothing short of an inquisition by the media Friday, one unlike any he’s ever endured.

How Stewart gets through that will likely set the stage and tone for every other media interview he’ll ever have for the rest of his life and career.

And frankly, for as tough of a Type-A personality that Stewart has, don’t be surprised if we see tears from him. In a way, Friday’s press conference may wind up being the most cathartic thing Stewart has gone through since the tragedy occurred late on the evening of August 9.

To make sure to himself, his fans and the Ward family that he’ll never forget young Kevin, perhaps Stewart will have some kind of memento or sticker upon or inside his race car to honor and remember Ward. It’s the least he can do to try and somewhat soften everyone’s pain.

There’s no question this tragedy has made Stewart a changed man and he will be that way forever. From here on out, he’ll be known as both a three-time champion and, sadly, someone who was involved in an tragic accident that killed another human being.

And also from here on out, Stewart will just have to approach everything a day, hour or even a minute at a time – and it will start by taking one baby step after another.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Red Bull secures engine deal for 2016 F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Members of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team take part in a pit stop practice session during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Red Bull Racing’s engine saga appears to have finally come to an end after team principal Christian Horner confirmed that an agreement had been struck with a supplier for the 2016 Formula 1 season.

Red Bull’s participation in next year’s championship had been uncertain after the team expressed a desire to cut ties with existing supplier Renault over frustrations with the performance of its power unit.

However, the team failed to strike a deal with Mercedes and turned down Ferrari’s offer of a 2015-spec power unit for the new season. Talks were also held with Honda, but this deal was vetoed by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, forcing Horner to rekindle negotiations with Renault.

A deal appears to have finally been struck that ensures Red Bull will still be racing in 2016, with an announcement due in the near future.

“We have an agreement with an engine for next year which hopefully will be confirmed in the coming days,” Horner is quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Red Bull is thought to have agreed an amendment to its deal with Renault that will allow the team to race with unbadged or rebranded engines in 2016 while the French manufacturer focuses on the impending takeover of Lotus and the revival of its works team.

B-team Toro Rosso is poised to take on 2015-spec Ferrari engines for the new season, ending its relationship with Renault after just two seasons.

Hamilton quickest in opening Abu Dhabi practice

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP returns to the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton kicked off the final race weekend of the 2015 season in impressive fashion by setting the pace first practice in Abu Dhabi on Friday.

With the weekend’s key sessions taking place far later in the day and therefore in different conditions, first practice offered the drivers little in the way of meaningful running ahead of the race.

However, what it did provide was a chance to evaluate some early updates ahead of the 2016 season, acting as a glorified test session that allowed the drivers to head out and get in some laps before turning their focus to race setup in FP2 later today.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg led the way once again, with the Briton coming out on top thanks to a lap of 1:43.754 to give him P1 by just over one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton’s session was not without its issues as he narrowly avoided spinning twice before telling the team “my car doesn’t feel good” with a few minutes remaining.

Nevertheless, it was still a strong start from Hamilton as he looks to end Rosberg’s recent resurgence and pick up a first victory since the United States Grand Prix last month.

Ferrari posed the most stringent challenge to the Mercedes drivers once again as Kimi Raikkonen finished six-tenths of a second back in P3. Teammate Sebastian Vettel finished fifth as Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat split the Ferrari drivers.

Daniel Ricciardo underpinned Kvyat’s pace in the sister Red Bull by ending FP1 in seventh place, slotting in between Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Massa rounded out the top ten in P9 and P10 respectively.

FP2 will offer the drivers more representative conditions, given that it will start at dusk just as qualifying and the race will, meaning that we are likely to be offered more of an indication of the pecking order.

You can watch second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Friday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks at a press conference next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda, Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The 2015 Formula 1 season may not have been one for the ages, but it has certainly offered some fascinating and entertaining storylines that will continue to have repercussions as we head into the new year.

Lewis Hamilton may have a third world title under his belt, but the recent good form of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg suggests that he may face a more stringent challenge to make it a set of four in 2016.

Before we can even begin to think about next year’s championship race though, there are a number of loose ends to be tied up in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

A number of teams’ futures are still up in the air, and while the grid is largely there, questions about the futures of most racing in F1 still linger.

For the final time in 2015, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

In part one, we catch up with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as he bids to stop Rosberg’s recent resurgence, while Romain Grosjean talks about his impending adventure with Haas F1 Team in 2016 ahead of his last race for Lotus.

We also talk to F1’s unofficial rookie of the year Max Verstappen ahead of his first race under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

Part two features a trio of drivers who haven’t had a year quite as impressive as those in part one. Fernando Alonso and Daniil Kvyat have both been left frustrated by engine woes, while Kimi Raikkonen’s failure to match teammate Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari has raised more than a few question marks. We hear from all three ahead of what is surely a much-welcomed last race of the year.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 world championship over a month ago now, but there is still plenty to play for as the paddock arrives in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year.

Nico Rosberg’s resurgence may have been too little, too late for this year’s title fight, but the German driver is currently on a run of form that will undoubtedly make him a contender once again for the 2016 crown.

Abu Dhabi has a knack for the spectacular, running as the only twilight race on the F1 calendar and boasting the Yas Viceroy hotel as its impressive centrepiece – under the lights, the stars come out.

For the final time in 2015, here are the MST team’s picks for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Be sure to let us know in the comments section your thoughts and make your own picks.

For full TV and streaming details ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP weekend, click here.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race WinnerNico Rosberg. Two on the bounce and having finally banished the demons of 2014, I’m tipping Nico to edge Lewis again in Abu Dhabi. It’ll set things up beautifully for 2016.

Surprising FinishMax Verstappen. Abu Dhabi has a habit of producing unpredictable races, so I’m tipping F1’s unofficial rookie of the year to come through strongly once again.

Most to ProveLewis Hamilton. It may be a little harsh to say that the world champion has to prove himself at the last race of the year, but he can’t afford to lose any more ground to Rosberg heading into the winter.

Additional Storyline to Watch: Bon voyage, Romain. After ten years of association with the Enstone operation, Romain Grosjean will bid farewell to Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas in 2016. Grosjean has been the on-track heartbeat of the team through some tough times, so will hopefully get the send-off he deserves.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. The talking point from a Mercedes standpoint going into the weekend is one of a psychological match-up. Rosberg’s lost the 2015 season long war, of course, but has firmly gained the upper edge in battle the last two races. For offseason momentum, if there is such a thing, Rosberg stands to gain the most with a third straight win, and even though this is a track Hamilton has dominated at in the past, Rosberg’s riding the hot hand of form right now.

Surprising Finish: Kimi Raikkonen. He’d never say it publicly, but Raikkonen should desperately want to finish ahead of his countryman and recent rival Bottas in the “best of the rest” category behind the top three. Third and fourth is about where the drivers should finish in the standings, given the Ferrari’s pace.

Most to Prove: McLaren Honda. At the track where the engine made its debut last year in the post-race test, I’m praying there’s a trouble free weekend for them. That’s all I ask.

Additional Storyline to Watch: The ends of eras, and the loose ends to tie up. Several eras come to an end this weekend, and there’s several items to get tied up this weekend (Red Bull engines, and more). The paddock drama may trump on the on-track drama this weekend.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari