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.

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Bourdais, Coyne thankful to have had time to build over winter

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 08:  Sebastian Bourdais of France, driver of the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara Honda, waits in the pit during practice for the IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 8, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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With both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones having been confirmed relatively early in this Verizon IndyCar Series offseason – by mid-November – it marked a change of course for both Dale Coyne Racing as a team, and for its re-signed lead driver.

Coyne’s a racing lifer and he and his Chicago-based team has been part of the IndyCar fabric for more than 30 years. But throughout that time, it had become something of a running joke that Coyne usually left his driver signings very late in the winter. He even warmed to the joke as the years have gone on.

In Bourdais’ case, not knowing whether he’d have a job year-to-year was always a threat, and became particularly worrisome last offseason when KVSH Racing only formally shored up the deal for him to be back for a third year the week of the IndyCar open test at Phoenix International Raceway in late February.

As such, knowing Coyne wanted to move the program forward – starting by getting the pieces done earlier – and knowing Bourdais wanted the stability and security throughout the offseason, it made sense the deal got done when it did. That peace of mind became evident once KVSH Racing again was set to face an uncertain future as the summer dragged into fall.

“It was massive,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “It was the first winter I’m not dreading the phone call where someone says, ‘Hey, that went down, or that did, or this happened.’ It’s very very reassuring and appealing. It’s the biggest reason why I was looking for something else. It was just not going to change with the organization we had.

“It’s no one’s fault. ‘Sulli’ (James Sullivan) did an amazing job; Jimmy (Vasser) was helping and Kevin (Kalkhoven) did what he felt he wanted or could do. You couldn’t blame the situation for what it was. But it was all planning, then money ran short and things went bad. Ultimately I’m very happy with what we’re doing here. Hopefully we can produce!”

KVSH was notably bullish on Bourdais’ prospects in preseason last year, while Bourdais sought to downplay it, but a season of underachieving and lost opportunities left the one-car team an unrepresentative 14th in points.

Bourdais, knowing Coyne’s team isn’t regarded as a world-beater (yet, anyway) and with the Honda package still likely to lag a bit behind Chevrolet at most races, is again guarding against setting the expectations too high.

“I don’t want to get the expectations too high. That doesn’t help anyone,” Bourdais said. “But Dale has put a massive commitment behind the program. I’ve kind of managed to get him to agree and commit to it as early as he did. That was so crucial.

Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar
Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar

“There’s a lot of things that are working here. Mike Cannon (engineer) did a great job with Darren (Crouser, team manager). It’s the first time there’s that many engineers in the office. They don’t think they’ll be there for a year or two. They want to build something. Of course there are limitations and restrictions. Consistency in a group can go a long way on that. But we’re looking to produce the fruit of everyone’s hard work.”

The engineering shake-up at Coyne provides a veritable smorgasbord of engineering goodness in one room (more here via IndyCar.com). Bourdais’ chief engineer from KVSH, Olivier Boisson, also makes the switch to Coyne. Bourdais is reunited with his championship-winning engineer from the Champ Car days, Craig Hampson, as his lead engineer. Cannon will serve as lead on Jones’ car.

“I raced against him in Champ Car,” Bourdais laughed. “It’s crucial to have him stick around again. The more continuity in the team, the better.”

Coyne was meant to test December 9 at Sebring before a washout cut the test down in advance. The team’s first test with both cars in road and street course configuration is now at Sebring on January 24-25, with Bourdais then continuing in Florida into the weekend for the second year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs.

Bourdais has run the gamut of teammates in his career. Oriol Servia and Bruno Junqueira won races when Bourdais was at Newman/Haas and Graham Rahal impressed as a rookie. In recent years, late deals have left drivers such as Katherine Legge, Sebastian Saavedra and Stefano Coletti scrambling to get integrated into the team, despite their ability.

Jones is unproven at the IndyCar level, but Bourdais said the talent exists for the 21-year-old Dubai-based Brit, who’s found a home in the U.S. in Miami.

“Hell, he won the championship in Lights, so we know he has talent,” Bourdais said. “It’s crucial to make sure the second car doesn’t hurt where I was going. The budget on the second car is fine, so it shouldn’t affect us in a bad way.

“If Ed can achieve and help us raise the bar, even better. That’s pretty much the way I look at it all along. But the biggest thing was making sure it wouldn’t drain the effort on my car, because otherwise you’re better off being alone.”

Bourdais turns 38 at the end of February and will embark on his 12th season in IndyCar, 10th overall (he raced part-time for Coyne in 2011, when he returned to IndyCar and in 2012) looking to build on his career record of 35 wins.

Coyne has four wins all-time and seems a good bet to add to that at least once more this year. If Bourdais can re-enter the top-10 in points after a one-year slip, it should be a good first step in the team’s turnaround.

Jenson Button tests a Honda Civic Red Bull GRC car (VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2016 in Shanghai, China.
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Jenson Button’s racing plans for 2017 aren’t settled yet, other than we know he’s staying affiliated with McLaren Honda as the team’s third and reserve driver.

Honda, of course, spreads its wings in so many other forms of motorsport, Red Bull Global Rallycross among them. And given Button’s love of rallying, you wondered if one day, the 2009 World Champion might test a Honda Civic that’s entered by the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE team.

Wonder no more. Button posted this Instagram video of him testing a one of the OMSE Civics at Sebring International Raceway, and thanked OMSE team principal Andreas Eriksson for the opportunity. Button called the test “pure driving” and “pure joy” within the caption.

Button turns 37 tomorrow and it would be a gift not just for him, but for American fans, if this test were eventually to blossom into something more with the team. The OMSE team is yet to reveal its Red Bull GRC program with Honda for the second season of competition for the Civic.

Button isn’t the first high-profile open-wheel driver to have sampled the car, as IndyCar driver Conor Daly did so as well the day after the season finale in Los Angeles.

NAPA returns to Rossi’s No. 98 at Andretti Autosport

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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After a shot-in-the-dark last-minute deal with Andretti-Herta Autosport to support Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 Honda at the 100th Indianapolis 500, NAPA Auto Parts entered into sponsorship immortality aboard the winning car.

The discussion from there was always going to be whether the relationship would continue and expand for either the rest of 2016 or into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series. After a one-weekend continuation into the Detroit doubleheader last year, NAPA and Andretti Autosport confirmed a greater relationship in 2017.

NAPA will serve as co-primary sponsor for Rossi’s car at seven races this season, including the month of May in Indianapolis. St. Petersburg will see the first NAPA appearance, with additional ones at Long Beach, Road America, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

The NAPA adorned show car has made a number of appearances around the country, including a recent one at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We are pleased to announce our continued partnership with one of the more iconic brands in all of motorsports, the Andretti brand” stated NAPA President, Dan Askey. “We are equally excited to partner with one of the rising stars in the sport in Alexander Rossi and proud to have Alexander representing NAPA both on and off the track. We were fortunate to come on board in May of 2016 becoming a part of history as we rode along with Alexander capturing the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport remains one of the elite teams in the IndyCar Series and we look forward to what 2017 holds.”

“NAPA is a storied, American brand and I couldn’t be more proud to announce our partnership is continuing,” added Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We were pleased to have previously announced that Alexander will be returning for the full season, and now to be able to confirm that NAPA is back on board – what a great way for us to start 2017. Our relationship with NAPA came together quickly during our Month of May program last year, and it wasn’t long before the partnership was written into history books. We can’t wait to add a few more pages to history together.”

New GTD manufacturers add intrigue to 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The trio of new manufacturers entering the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona – Acura, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – add three more bullets to an already loaded GT Daytona 27-car class field for the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. It brings the total number of manufacturers entered this year up to nine, joining six returning brands (Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin) from 2016.

The new cars have all taken an interesting road to get here as they make their U.S. race competition debuts, following either or both of testing and international class racing.

Acura enters with arguably the most buzz among the three manufacturers. The sister brand to Honda has the cache of the history of the NSX brand from the early 1990s, and the long-awaited revival of the new NSX as a GT3 model comes with much anticipation.

No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In Michael Shank Racing, Acura has a team with nearly two decades of endurance experience, in collaboration with Peter Cunningham’s RealTime Racing which has been an integral part of the testing process. The car was revealed last spring in New York and made its on-track testing debut in late July at the Pirelli World Challenge weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, not far from Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio. A further public test at Utah Motorsports Campus in August followed.

Testing hasn’t been entirely smooth, which is to be expected as teams work through the mechanical niggles and prefer to diagnose issues early. As Shank explained to at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show in Indianapolis in December, the working process has gotten better with each run.

“Every time we take the car out, it’s getting better, literally,” Shank told NBC Sports. “Every time it goes out the door, there’s more done to the car to make it endurance-worthy, comfortable for drivers, quick – it’s just a huge bucket list, a punch-out list of stuff to get done that we’re slowly taking care of.”

Acura’s pair of NSX GT3s slotted in 20th and 23rd at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which may not be representative of the car’s ultimate pace.

With their lineups of Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Tom Dyer and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 86 Acura and Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal in the No. 93 car, the team has assembled eight all-star drivers who are all close and consistent enough on pace to keep the cars in the fight.

No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Lexus enters into GTD following a roller coaster year-and-a-half of buildup. The team’s initial RC F GT3 lacked outright competitiveness before homologation issues, and required a new build of a second generation car that spent the latter half of 2016 building up mileage.

The former Rocketsports Racing – or RSR when it was in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class – has had a mixed history with GT cars. Paul Gentilozzi’s effort was a race- and championship-winning machine in the Trans-Am days, most recently with a Jaguar XKR in the early 2000s. However, when the RSR Jaguar program entered into GT2 (now GT Le Mans) in the American Le Mans Series, it struggled for both pace and reliability.

Toyota, Lexus’ sister brand, seems entirely committed to the Lexus project, and the renamed 3GT Racing has a great future-looking lineup with Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Robert Alon – all 25 or less – as three of its four full-season drivers. And in Scott Pruett, they have one of the most successful sports car drivers of all-time as their lead driver and mentor-in-chief.

“To have the passion and ability he has at 56, to be a wheelman is unreal,” Karam told NBC Sports. “That dude can still wheel a car. Listening to how he talks and goes about everything, it’s unlike anyone else. I’m blessed to have a teammate like Scott.”

Endurance race extras include a capable quartet of Ian James and Gustavo Menezes (No. 14) and Austin Cindric and Dominik Farnbacher (No. 15), the latter of whom probably has been most integral to the Lexus development process. Lexus was 21st and 24th at the Roar.

The most ironed out car should, in theory, be the new Mercedes-AMG GT3. The car tested for the first time at Daytona in November 2015, which gives it already more than a year up on the other two outright new cars. It had success in European GT racing last year.

In Riley Motorsports, Mercedes has a team that is perhaps the most well-sorted in the paddock. Bill Riley leaves no stone unturned and even with new cars, with the Dodge Viper GT3-R retired from competition, the expectation is that Riley’s pair of Mercedes will be instant competitors. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating share the team’s No. 33 car while the WeatherTech Racing pair of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the team’s No. 50 car.

“It’s not too hard (of a transition) because this car is so nice and easy to drive,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Pace at the Roar backed that up. The No. 33 Mercedes was second, the No. 50 Mercedes 11th, and the third Mercedes – the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing entry – split them nearly right down the middle in seventh.

Audi won its first WeatherTech Championship race last year in GTD with its new R8 LMS, which extended the new car’s run of early success in international endurance races to four wins in its five most recent starts. The Mercedes’ run of international success last year included a top-four sweep at last year’s 24-hour enduro at the Nürburgring as part of 18 overall wins, so it follows that even though this race is its IMSA debut, it could and probably should contend for class honors.

For Acura and Lexus, the goals are different. With this being the first race for both cars, finishing is the first and most important goal. Ford achieved a wealth of success as it went on with the Ford GT throughout 2016, but arguably fell flat on its face with a litany of issues that popped up on its worldwide race debut at Daytona.

Provided each of those two manufacturers can get one car home to the finish, it will have been a solid start. For Mercedes-AMG, meanwhile, a win at Daytona is within range to extend its run of form, provided it gets past the other outstanding challengers in class.