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.

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Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”