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

36 Comments

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

Vettel leads Raikkonen home for Monaco GP win, ends Ferrari’s drought

Getty Images
1 Comment

Sebastian Vettel extended his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by taking his third win of the 2017 season in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, heading up a one-two finish for Ferrari ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

After trailing Raikkonen throughout the first stint of the race, Vettel managed to extend his first stint out longer than his Finnish counterpart and produce a series of quick laps to get the jump through the pit stop cycle.

Vettel emerged from the pits in the lead and never looked back, storming clear to clinch his second Monaco Grand Prix victory and end Ferrari’s victory drought in the principality that dated back to 2001.

Raikkonen controlled the early part of the race for Ferrari, running two seconds clear of Vettel at one stage before the German was able to reel his teammate in ahead of the pit stop cycle.

Raikkonen pitted first, with Vettel opting to push on for another three laps, pumping in a series of quick times that ultimately decided the race.

After coming to switch to super-soft tires, Vettel emerged from the pits ahead of Raikkonen before quickly creating a gap that proved too great for the Finn to bridge, even with the assistance of a late safety car.

The race to complete the podium saw Red Bull and Mercedes enter a strategic battle, with Valtteri Bottas running P3 through the first stint. Red Bull pitted fourth-placed Max Verstappen early, forcing Mercedes to bring Bottas in one lap later to cover.

Bottas stayed ahead of Verstappen, but with the pair losing time behind Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniel Ricciardo was able to leapfrog both when, like Vettel, he pitted later, allowing him to vault ahead into third place.

With Vettel streaming clear at the front, Raikkonen soon found himself coming under pressure from Ricciardo for second, setting the stage for a tense battle through the closing stages.

Vettel’s lead was wiped away with 17 laps to go, though, when the safety car was deployed following a strange incident involving Pascal Wehrlein and Jenson Button at Portier.

Button tried overtaking at one of the tightest points of the circuit, resulting in contact that sent Wehrlein’s car into the air. The Sauber C36 came to rest on its side up against the wall, sparking concern for Wehrlein’s condition. The German quickly reported he was OK, just unable to get out of the car due to where his car came to rest. He was quickly taken away to the medical centre for further checks.

The safety car period was extended when Wehrlein’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, crashed his car after being given the wave-by to unlap himself.

The race returned to green with 12 laps to go with Vettel still leading, but it was Max Verstappen who was the man to watch. Having taken a free pit stop under the safety car and switched to ultra-soft tires, the Dutchman began to pile pressure on Ricciardo and Bottas ahead, keen to complete the podium.

Ricciardo gave his teammate a look-in when he ran wide at Turn 1 on the restart, clipping the wall in the process, but the Australian soon recovered and kept calm to clinch third place. Bottas did well to keep Verstappen at bay for fourth, with the flying Dutchman taking P5 for his first points and, indeed, finish in Monaco.

Carlos Sainz Jr. made good on a strong weekend for Toro Rosso by crossing the line sixth ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could not rise any higher than seventh after his qualifying disaster. A long first stint allowed the Briton to jump from 13th on the grid to inside the top 10, but he was powerless to stop Vettel extending his title lead to 25 points.

Haas enjoyed its best weekend in F1 to date as it notched its first double-points finish. Romain Grosjean finished eighth, while Kevin Magnussen recovered from an extra pit stop to finish 10th. The pair were split by Williams’ Felipe Massa, who was ninth at the line.

Jolyon Palmer was the sole finisher for Renault in P11 after seeing teammate Nico Hulkenberg retire early on due to a gearbox failure.

Force India had a weekend to forget as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez both hit trouble during the race, leaving them 12th and 13th respectively. The result marked an end to Perez’s 15-race streak of points, which had been the longest active run on the grid, with a late tangle with Daniil Kvyat forcing the Russian to retire.

Jenson Button’s comeback weekend ended just as his original goodbye race in Abu Dhabi did last November as he was forced to retire following the clash with Wehrlein. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had been on for points, only to crash at Turn 1 after a mistake on the restart after the safety car.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with its first visit of the year to North America, venturing to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Button gets pre-race radio message from Alonso in Indianapolis (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Jenson Button was given a special message by Fernando Alonso live from Indianapolis ahead of his one-off Formula 1 return in Monaco on Sunday just seconds before lights out.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, but was drafted in by McLaren to race in Monaco when Alonso secured a deal to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button qualified ninth in Monaco despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car until Thursday, only to be sent to the back of the grid due to a power unit penalty.

McLaren decided to start Button from the pit lane instead, with the Briton getting a special radio message from Alonso – who is up and watching the race in Indianapolis – as he left the garage.

Alonso wished Button the best of luck before telling him: “Look after my car!” Button responded by saying: “OK, I’ll pee in the seat!”

Button to start Monaco GP from pit lane after floor change

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jenson Button will start his one-off comeback Formula 1 race in Monaco from the pit lane after McLaren opted to change the floor on his car after qualifying.

Button was drafted in by McLaren for the Monaco Grand Prix weekend following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the 101st Indianapolis 500, with the Briton previously stepping away from F1 at the end of last year.

Despite having no prior testing heading into the weekend, Button was quick to tame the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car, taking it to ninth place in qualifying.

A 15-place grid penalty for changes to his power unit resigned Button to the back of the grid for the race, prompting McLaren to make setup alterations overnight and favor a pit lane start for Button.

“As the floor is different from the one originally used in qualifying the competitor is required to start from the pit lane,” the FIA race stewards said in a bulletin ahead of the race.

Marcus Ericsson has also been handed a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. The Sauber driver’s qualifying position remains unchanged, though, by virtue of finishing 19th.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Romain Grosjean Haas
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
11. Kevin Magnussen Haas
12. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
13. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
14. Felipe Massa Williams
15. Esteban Ocon Force India
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Lance Stroll Williams
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
PL. Jenson Button McLaren

Wolff can see Hamilton finishing F1 career with Mercedes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can see three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton completing the rest of his career with the team, something he did not think would happen one year ago.

Hamilton has raced with Mercedes since 2013, claiming two F1 drivers’ titles in that time and the majority of his grand prix victories.

Hamilton is currently in the second of his three-year contract with Mercedes, and will be 33 upon its expiration at the end of next season.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Wolff said he could see Hamilton remaining at the team “forever”, believing their relationship to be stronger than ever.

“If you would have asked me the same question one year ago, I would not have been very optimistic, but now it is different,” Wolff said.

“I have the feeling that it can’t be much better in a different place, for him and for us.

“This is very strong now, and I am not speaking only about on-track performance because there are going to be difficult moments, but I am speaking about the relationship.

“After five years, this relationship has become so strong in a way that it wasn’t last season. For Lewis it will be important to see whether we are competitive or not.

“But at the moment there is such a solid basis that I can imagine it going on forever.”

Wolff believes there has been a shift for Hamilton in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s departure from the team at the end of 2016 following the German’s world title win.

Hamilton and Rosberg enjoyed a frosty rivalry that saw them clash a number of times on-track, with the latter’s exit helping to ease some of the tension within the team.

“Definitely the biggest positive development I have seen between 2013 and now happened over the winter and after Nico left the team,” Wolff said.

“Drivers are sometimes viewed within teams as contractors and they will always look after their own agenda rather than the team’s interest.

“But Lewis is now in his fifth year with us and that has changed. He has become a part of the team.

“I would not use the world team player because that goes against the DNA of a racing driver, but I think he has realized, acknowledged and respects the whole effort that is happening in the team.

“Somehow it has become natural, he towards the team, and the team towards him. We have built a trustful relationship.”