Jeff Gordon: Last 3 races weren’t the same without Tony Stewart

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have a lot in common.

They’re both 43 (2 ½ months apart), are from Indiana (Gordon is a California transplant), practically grew up together – particularly on the dirt tracks of the Midwest – and since then have been battling each other on Sprint Cup tracks for the last 16 seasons.

Gordon and all other Sprint Cup drivers experienced what it was like to race without Stewart last season, when he missed the last 15 races due to a broken leg suffered in a sprint car wreck.

But the last three races at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – all which Stewart missed in the aftermath of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy – there was a different atmosphere without Stewart. It’s as if it just wasn’t quite NASCAR without Stewart in the No. 14.

Now that Stewart is back for this weekend’s action at Atlanta Motor Speedway, MotorSportsTalk asked Gordon what the last three races were like without Stewart – who oftentimes is the life of the party at a racetrack – around on-track or in the garage.

“He’s such a big part of this series,” Gordon told MST. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best race car drivers I’ve ever raced against. I respect him so much, and as well as the giving part and soul that the guy has.”

To illustrate Stewart’s largesse and spirit, Gordon then reflected back to a charity go-kart event in Knoxville, Iowa, that he, Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took part in, just three days before the tragedy in upstate New York.

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“Before this whole incident happened, I was racing go-karts against him in Knoxville, raising a lot of money for charity,” Gordon told MST. “He said to me, ‘Let’s do it next year. Let’s do it again. This is so awesome, we’ve got to do this next year.’

“I told him, ‘I’m in. I’ll do this for the next five years, if you want to do it.’ He goes, ‘I’m in, let’s do it.’ He’s that kind of person. But he’s also a fierce competitor. So on the track, you know that if Tony Stewart’s out there, you’re going to have to deal with him to win that race or get that position. He’s just an awesome race car driver.”

Gordon was like dozens of others who sent along well-wishes to Stewart during his self-imposed exile.

“I sent him a text as soon as I found out he was coming this week, that I’m very supportive of having him back and to know, based on watching the press conference, how emotional this has been for him,” Gordon said.

“I probably haven’t spent as much time with him as a lot of other drivers have away from the racetrack, getting to know that sarcastic side to him or that joking side to him,” Gordon said. “But the time I have spent with him, the guy’s just a good, fun-loving guy to hang out with.

“I think we’re all happy to have him back. I just hate the fact of what the circumstances were as to why he wasn’t here.”

Heading into Friday night’s qualifying session, Stewart came in having recorded the 10th-fastest speed in the practice session a few hours earlier.

“I do think the best thing for him is to be in that race car,” Gordon said of Stewart. “And don’t be surprised if he sits on the pole tonight. He was fast in his qualifying runs. So he might make quite a return.”

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Williams confirms Kubica and Sirotkin for Abu Dhabi F1 test

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Williams has confirmed that Robert Kubica will enjoy his third Formula 1 test outing with the team at the end-of-season running in Abu Dhabi next week as rumors grow regarding a possible race seat for 2018.

Almost seven years after his last F1 start, Kubica’s remarkable return from severe injuries sustained in a rally accident saw him enjoy two private tests with Renault before completing running with the team in a 2017-spec car in Hungary over the summer.

Reservations over Kubica’s capabilities prompted Renault to pass on giving him a seat, instead opting to hire Carlos Sainz Jr. for next year, only for Williams to become an alternative for the Pole.

Kubica tested a 2014-spec Williams at both Silverstone and the Hungaroring in recent months, and will now sample a 2017 car when he tests at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Kubica will share track time with regular Williams racer Lance Stroll and Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin, who has worked with Renault over the past two years but also missed out on a 2018 seat.

“Williams Martini Racing is pleased to confirm it will run Robert Kubica and Sergey Sirotkin for the Abu Dhabi Pirelli tire test, alongside current race driver Lance Stroll,” a statement from the team reads.

“The Pirelli tire test will take place over two days at the Yas Marina circuit during the week following the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“On day one Robert Kubica will drive the FW40 in the morning session, before Lance Stroll takes over in the afternoon.

“On day two Sergey Sirotkin will drive in the morning and afternoon sessions before handing over to Robert in the late afternoon.

“The test is aimed at evaluating 2018 candidate tires on behalf of the Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli.

“Williams is excited to have this opportunity to assess the new tyres across such an interesting range of drivers: Lance, as confirmed race driver for 2018, Robert with his huge experience, and Sergey as a very promising young talent in Formula 1.”

Williams denied earlier this week it has signed Kubica to partner Stroll for 2018, but indications are the deal looks very likely to go ahead, subject to the relevant paperwork and contracts being finalized.