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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Lewis Hamilton: My decision to make early pit stop in Australian GP

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed it was his call to stop early during Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, having struggled to hold on to the lead of the race due to his fading tires.

Despite tipping Ferrari to be the team to beat in Australia, Hamilton took the 62nd pole position of his career on Saturday, beating Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton retained his lead in the early part of the race from Ferrari driver Vettel, only for the German to turn in a sequence of quick laps ahead of the first round of pit stops.

Fearful of losing the lead on-track to Vettel, Hamilton opted to pit early at the end of Lap 16 so that he could put his fresh tires to good use and try to get the undercut on his rival.

Ferrari did not react immediately, keeping Vettel out until Hamilton hit traffic, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen holding the Mercedes driver back and creating a bigger gap between the two victory contenders.

Vettel was able to pit and come back out ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, immediately forging a buffer that would sustain until the end of the race.

Hamilton explained after the race that he decided to come in early due to his tire concerns, believing that Vettel would have overtaken him anyway.

“We had a really good start, which is fantastic, it’s great to have a good getaway – but then we were struggling with the grip from the get-go,” Hamilton said.

“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times. Towards the end I got a bit in traffic and overheated the tires and was struggling with grip, so it was to the point that I needed to come in.

“The gap was closing up and I was sliding around so it was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyways. I came in and then I obviously got stuck in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”

Hamilton congratulated Vettel on his success, and said the result boded well for a close championship fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.

“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, I know it’s been a long time coming to get a result like this,” Hamilton said.

“It shows we’re going to have a race on our hands, which we’re happy to have. I think it’s great for the fans.

“Unfortunately it’s harder than ever to get closer to cars, which is a shame because we can’t have an even closer battle. Who knows, maybe in the future we will.”

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

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Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

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Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”