Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

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

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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

Friday at Mid-Ohio: A busy day before rain stops play

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – There are a lot of things to like about combined Verizon IndyCar Series/Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires/Pirelli World Challenge weekends, primarily the variety of content on track and the flurry of non-stop action from dawn to dusk.

One of the things not to like, though, is the sheer volume of things that come out of each of the three – and when you cover each of the three regularly, it’s easy to get behind.

That being said, here’s an attempt to recap all that’s taken place here today:

INDYCAR

  • There were two practice sessions as noted (Scott Dixon led first practice, Will Power second), although the second one ended early due to rain (I blame myself following my run back from the IndyCar Radio booth…).
  • Have to give a shoutout to rookie RC Enerson, who was seriously impressive in his first full official day at the office. Enerson took what he learned from the test day last week with Dale Coyne Racing and was even more comfortable. He’ll have to adapt to the Firestone red alternate tires in qualifying tomorrow – it’s something that challenges even veterans – but he’s impressing the team with how much he’s taken in that’s getting thrown at him. Seventh in practice is remarkable; we’ll see how well it translates tomorrow.
  • There were also a couple media availabilities during the day. The first was Graham Rahal, defending race winner, for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks, but Rahal made a couple interesting points. One, he addressed the Target departure – he had a sense this day would come even going back to when he was a member of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams in 2011 and 2012 – but said partners are out there, they just need to be found. He also noted how having only one car has hurt RLL this year, given the volume of in-season testing, and the relative lack of data gathered compared to four-car mights from Team Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Last year, without that same amount of in-season testing,
  • The Target bit dovetails nicely, perhaps, into Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi’s media availability – the first for the two since the announcement earlier this week that Target would end its IndyCar relationship with Ganassi after 27 years. Ganassi, who did most of the talking in the 20-plus minute gathering, dismissed the idea that this was an IndyCar-related decision or a TV-related decision. He said it was a pure business decision and that he has nothing but praise for Target for all they’ve done for his team, and by default, the sport of IndyCar racing on the whole. More to follow from this availability in the coming days.
  • We mentioned Honda’s “Christmas in July” camping theme earlier? Now, there’s Santa hats to match
  • Our social team was busy; Conor Daly did a Twitter takeover on the @IndyCaronNBCSN feed (you can view that here; here’s Daly saying thanks), and Rahal also did a Facebook Live video (available to view here).
  • Two memorials were held to celebrate the lives of two amazing women. The first was for NBCSN pit producer Jenny Nickell this morning at the IndyCar Paddock Club (watch video produced by Taylor Rollins, narrated by Bob Jenkins here). The second was at Honda hospitality for Brenda McHale, wife of veteran Honda PR man T.E. McHale, who died earlier this year. T.E. is one of the true gems in the IndyCar paddock and it was great to see the outpouring of support from the community at both events, which were overflowing despite the small tent sizes.

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

  • The busiest series of the three today was the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, which held both qualifying and its first race of the weekend. Australian Anthony Martin won both sessions for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, the latter coming with a pivotal swing in the championship – a cut tire resigned his teammate and prior points leader Parker Thompson to 17th. Martin went from 20 down to nine up going into Saturday’s race two of three this weekend. Victor Franzoni (ArmsUp Motorsports) and Luke Gabin (JAY Motorsports) completed the top three finishers, ahead of Jordan Lloyd and Dakota Dickerson.
  • Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires also got in two sessions, practice and qualifying. Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) has the pole for the first of two races this weekend, courtesy of a new track record (1:18.138) that beats a 10-year-old mark of 1:18.300 set by Ryan Justice in 2006! Aaron Telitz qualified second with Pato O’Ward, his Team Pelfrey teammate, only fifth.
  • The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires only got one practice in with its second session scrubbed due to rain. In the first and only session, Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports led from Shelby Blackstock, with Ed Jones and Dean Stoneman only sixth and eighth. They qualify and have their first race tomorrow.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • Owing to the rain and the fact they were scheduled when they were, the only session of the day was GTS qualifying from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. ET. Both GT practice and the GTS first race were scrubbed due to the rain; they were set to run from 4:15 to 4:45 and 5 to 6 p.m. ET, respectively.
  • Here’s how GTS will work: Saturday’s now considered second race of the weekend will be run using today’s GTS qualifying times and be a standing start. The postponed race will be a makeup round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and feature a fresh qualifying, making that finale now a tripleheader.
  • The other big news of the day? The provisional 2017 schedule is out, and the word “provisional” cannot be stressed enough. The determination of which classes have which drivers, which races fall under Sprint versus Sprint X designation, and which races are standalones versus on IndyCar weekends will all be further explained in the days to come. This release comes on the heels of the SRO announcing its 2017 schedules at the Total 24 Hours of Spa weekend (release here, calendars here).
  • With GT practice scrubbed, so too is the opportunity for fans and onlookers here to see the new Acura NSX GT3 – tested by Peter Kox this weekend – on track in practice. The car remains on display throughout the weekend and a photo opportunity will come on Saturday morning.

Buemi set for first F1 test in two years next week with Red Bull

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 3:  In this handout image supplied by Formula E The Podium.
Sebastien Buemi (SUI), Renault e.Dams Z.E.15. during the London Formula E race on JULY 3, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Adam Warner/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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Formula E champion Sebastien Buemi will enjoy his first Formula 1 test in over two years next week when he represents Red Bull in the latest Pirelli tire evaluation runs ahead of the 2017 season.

Buemi raced for Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, between 2009 and 2011 before being dropped to make way for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Red Bull kept ties with Buemi, hiring him as the team’s test and reserve driver, a role he continues to enjoy in tandem with commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship and Formula E.

His last F1 test came with Red Bull following the Spanish Grand Prix in 2014, and also completed a filming day for the team in Barcelona last year.

The Swiss driver won the second Formula E title in London at the beginning of the month with Renault e.dams, and is now set to get back behind the wheel of an F1 car as part of the ongoing evaluation of Pirelli’s new tires for 2017.

Buemi will get behind the wheel of a ‘mule’ car – a modified RB11 used in the 2015 season – and try out the wider tires on Wednesday and Thursday at Mugello, as confirmed by Red Bull’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan on Friday.

Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes have already conducted testing to evaluate the new compounds for 2017, but the wider treads will first hit the track on Monday.

Sebastian Vettel will complete the first day of testing with Ferrari at Fiorano, followed by Esteban Gutierrez on Tuesday before Buemi’s stint at Mugello.

Lowe: Hamilton’s reaction to yellow flag saga in Hungary ‘regrettable’

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe believes that Lewis Hamilton’s reaction to the yellow flag saga in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was “regrettable”.

Hamilton was denied pole in Hungary after Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg beat his time with the final lap of Q3, despite completing part of it under yellow flags.

Hamilton told NBCSN on Thursday in Germany that the saga had set a precedent for drivers to follow in the future, and believes it could cause safety issues in the future.

Reports over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend claimed that Hamilton went to FIA race director Charlie Whiting and asked him to investigate Rosberg’s lap.

On Friday, Lowe said he believes Hamilton did go and see Whiting after qualifying to seek clarity regarding yellow flag rules, not to try and get his teammate stripped of pole.

“It’s my understanding that Lewis did go and see Charlie but it wasn’t in any way to seek a review of Nico’s lap,” Lowe said.

“It was for his own understanding of what should be done in the future, how that should work for him in the future.

“I think that was regrettable. Personally, he should have kept to advice from the team and we can obtain that from Charlie as necessary.

“But I don’t think there was any harm done. It was just a misjudgement from that point of view.”

Whiting confirmed on Friday that if double waved yellow flags are shown during qualifying from now on, the session will be red flagged immediately to prevent a repeat of the saga from Hungary.

Power leads before it pours in Mid-Ohio second practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Will Power topped the timesheets before the rains hit the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in the second 75-minute Verizon IndyCar Series practice of the day – albeit only 45 of which was run before the Mid-Ohio circuit turned into a water park.

Times descended a bit from the morning’s 1:04.4 best lap achieved by Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Power clocked in a 1:04.1962 in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet this session at the 2.258-mile road course.

Power was one of 16 drivers in the 1:04 bracket, an improvement upon the morning session when only the top 11 were in the 1:04 range.

There were no incidents of note other than a couple off course excursions before the rains hit.

Videos of the session are below:

Team Penske waits out the rain

Josef Newgarden and his recovery from his hand injury

Alexander Rossi returns to another familiar track

Times are below.

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