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

IndyCar CEO: No safety changes for 2016 car, despite Wilson death

indycar ceo mark miles
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An investigation into the August accident that killed driver Justin Wilson has resulted in no recommendations for immediate safety changes in race cars, IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said.

But changes could be in line by 2017, including some sort of canopy or enclosed cockpit or surrounding apron to protect drivers, Miles told USA Today.

The 37-year-old Wilson was struck in the head from a piece of debris that flew off Sage Karam’s wrecked car during a race at Pocono Raceway. Wilson died the following day in a Pennsylvania hospital.

“What the report provides is a lot of technical data about the energy involved and the forces and exactly what happened and all of that,” Miles told USA Today. “I don’t think there were any revelations. I think for everybody, with or without the report, all of us hope to be able to make progress in finding ways to make the cockpit safer and to reduce the risks.

“So for example, there may be some short-term measures like tethering some parts that weren’t this year, but could be. That’s a work in progress. But I don’t want to give the sense that was because of anything revealed in the accident investigation. What you think happened, happened there.”

One area that has received considerable discussion is the potential for enclosed cockpits or canopies in Indy cars. But the development of such a device will take time, prompting Miles to predict that if canopies or capsules are ultimately added as a safety precaution, it likely would not occur until at least the 2017 season.

“You’re not going to see a change to the car for next year in this regard just because I don’t think it’s possible,” Miles said. “… These are technical challenges and it’s hard to imagine that anything transformative will happen this year. At this point, I wouldn’t rule out 2017, but the research has to be done, the development has to be done to answer the questions as to what can be done by when.”

Addressing specifically the investigation of Wilson’s accident, Miles said, “It reinforces the risks, I think, of the open cockpit and further energizes efforts in motorsport to try to reduce those risks.”

But devising a cockpit or canopy – if either is adopted – will take considerable development and testing time. Miles said he’s had lengthy discussions with officials from groups such as NASA and the aerospace industry that provide cockpits for entities such as jet fighters.

He added that Formula 1 officials have also been studying enclosed cockpits for quite some time, particularly things such as ingress/egress from within the cockpit, as well as heat buildup inside.

“Obviously, the foundational point is whether there’s a solution which protects the driver and there may be no solution which provides complete protection if you get into a situation like in Las Vegas (where driver Dan Wheldon died as a result of head injuries when he stuck a catch fence support),” Miles said. “But it’s how much more safe can you make it while proving for not having unintended consequences.”

Miles said that in addition to canopies and enclosed cockpits, IndyCar is also looking at other variations and the potential risk vs. rewards of those as well.

“This is not necessarily about a completely closed cockpit,” Miles said. “It could be more of an apron. If something hits that … it’s possible (the object) could be propelled higher and further and an unintended consequence could be the risk of something going into the crowd.

“It doesn’t necessarily knock it down and put it on the track if something was coming at a car like that, especially something like a tire that has energy in it.

“What is clear to me is we’ve got an outside perspective as do our safety people, on the long list of things you have to address. … Hopefully something meaningful can happen.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Luca Filippi

Josef Newgarden, Luca Filippi
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, in 2015. Luca Filippi ended 21st in the No. 20 car, running the road and street course races for CFH Racing.

Luca Filippi, No. 20 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 28th Place, 4 starts
  • 2015: 21st Place (10 starts), Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 6th, 1 Podium, 1 Top-5, 4 Top-10, 2 Laps Led, 12.4 Avg. Start, 13.9 Avg. Finish

After part-time runs with Bryan Herta Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2013 and 2014, likable Italian Luca Filippi finally got his first full part-time season as the road and street course replacement at CFH Racing, replacing Mike Conway. Having won twice last year, Conway left some decently big shoes to fill and Filippi did a fair job throughout the year more often than not.

Filippi had a slightly better grid position average than did Conway, 12.4 to 13, and was slightly better overall in the races. In 10 races (including one with double points), Filippi scored 182 points and four top-10 finishes (including one top-five). A year ago, Conway scored 252 points from 12 starts, but only two top-10 finishes (both were wins). Broken down, Conway averaged 21 points per race (about a 10th place result) and Filippi 18.2 (about 12th).

Thing was last year, Conway didn’t have a measuring stick as ECR was a single-car team. In the combined two-car CFH Racing organization, Filippi had Josef Newgarden as a teammate, and that provided a more accurate measuring stick. In their 10 races together, Newgarden finished ahead 7-3, and also qualified ahead 7-3.

Filippi felt more comfortable as the year progressed – keep in mind this was the first time he’d seen most of the tracks – and at places like Toronto and Mid-Ohio where had had past track experience, he shone brightest. It was no coincidence his lone Firestone Fast Six appearance and first career podium came at Toronto, and at Mid-Ohio he was also very quick but caught out by strategy in the race.

During the year, Filippi also had two other key moments of note, one personal and one professional. He became a dad prior to Mid-Ohio, and was embracing his newborn shortly after the race not long after. Professionally speaking, he made his oval test debut at Iowa, which was important to note in case CFH wants to continue on with him next year, as seems possible. It was a good year that planted the seed for further success in the future, provided he continues in North America.