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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.

MORE: Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

“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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Sainz frustrated as puncture ends Belgian GP after strong start

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR11 Ferrari 060/5 turbo with a punctured rear tyre during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Carlos Sainz Jr. made no secret of his frustration after a puncture brought his Belgian Grand Prix to an early end while running inside the points.

Toro Rosso arrived in Belgium skeptical of its chances given the advances made by other teams running 2016-spec engines, with the Italian team still using a 2015-spec Ferrari power unit.

Sainz qualified a lowly 15th on Saturday, but a flying start saw him rise up to seventh at the end of the first lap.

However, a tire blow-out while approaching 200 mph on the Kemmel Straight ruined Sainz’s race. A vain attempt to return to the pits only caused more damage to his car, tearing the rear wing off before the Spaniard eventually parked up at the side of the track.

“How frustrating to have to retire from the race because of a puncture!” Sainz said after the race.

“I did one of the best starts of my life and by the end of the first lap I had gained seven positions and was racing in P7.

“But I then went over some debris from other cars at the start of my second lap and the tire ended up exploding after Eau Rouge.

“It definitely wasn’t the best moment of my life, especially after doing such a good start!

“It’s frustrating to have to end the race like this, but I will keep fighting and forget today as quickly as possible.”

Teammate Daniil Kvyat had a quiet race, finishing 14th despite thinking at one point that points may have been within reach.

“We pushed quite hard today and after the red flag there was some hope – at one point it even looked like we could dream of scoring some points,” Kvyat said.

“I think we did a great job with the tires, but we started to struggle with straight-line speed and the deficit was more and more obvious after the second pit-stop.

“It’s a shame, but at least we can say we did our absolute best today. Unfortunately not many people will see this, as we only ended up P14 and out of the points, but it’s not that bad.

“We will have to take our opportunities at tracks that suit us better.”

Vettel: Talks, not penalties, right way to deal with Verstappen

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Sebastian Vettel is keen to have talks with Max Verstappen about his on-track actions during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, believing it to be a better way to handle things than issuing a penalty.

Verstappen clashed with both Vettel and Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 1 on the first lap of the race, leaving all three drivers with damage.

Verstappen then incurred the wrath of Raikkonen later in the race after forcing him off-track at Les Combes, before moving late when defending his position the next lap on the Kemmel Straight at 200 mph.

Verstappen defended his actions after the race, but Vettel thinks that something needs to be done.

“We talked about moving under braking. Top speed… reaching 340 km/h… and he’s moving,” Vettel told NBCSN after the race.

“It works so long as the car behind plays accordingly and lifts. But if both stick to line, both crash. That’s not what you want to do.

“If you drive like that it won’t end up too well. More than anything it cost us – and him – a lot of time.”

Vettel said it was best that the stewards did not investigate Verstappen’s moves, instead saying that such issues were better dealt by the drivers talking together.

“I don’t like to investigate anything. We’re men; we’re not in kindergarten,” Vettel said.

“If I have a problem with Max I need to go to talk to him. But obviously right after race isn’t the best moment! Leave it to us though.

“If you go beyond the limits you need to talk. In general, I’m not a fan. We’re not here to cry, ‘oh here’s a penalty!’

“Today we could have had a great race. We could have had both cars on the podium but sometimes these things happen.”

Verstappen blames Raikkonen, Vettel for ‘destroying’ Belgian GP at Turn 1

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Max Verstappen has blamed Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel for ending his hopes of a podium finish in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, saying his race was “destroyed” at Turn 1.

The race at Spa-Francorchamps acted as Verstappen’s home event as tens of thousands of fans made the trip over from his native Netherlands, resulting in the circuit’s best raceday attendance in over a decade.

Verstappen made a slow start from second place on the grid, slipping behind Raikkonen on the run down to the first corner.

The Dutchman tried to dive down the inside of Raikkonen at La Source, only for the two to make contact and also tangle with Vettel on the outside.

The collision left Verstappen with damage that forced him to pit at the end of the first lap, taking a new front wing.

However, more severe damage was caused to his floor, costing him over one second per lap for the remainder of the race en route to 11th place at the checkered flag.

“I got squeezed. Kimi wanted to turn in. Sebastian did on both of us,” Verstappen told NBCSN after the race.

“Destroyed my front wing and the whole floor. Fans were so great… but unfortunately was not our day.

“We had a car like you could see to finish on the podium. But when other drivers take that away from you, you’re not happy.

“Today everything got destroyed in Turn 1.”

Verstappen faced the wrath of Raikkonen during the race after some aggressive defensive moves, prompting the Ferrari driver to express his anger over team radio.

Verstappen thought little of the Finn’s comments, though, saying he would have been penalized by the stewards had it been an unfair move.

“I should have got a penalty if it was not correct. So it was fair,” he said.

Raikkonen fumes over Verstappen moves, predicts ‘big accident’

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Kimi Raikkonen predicts that Max Verstappen will cause a “big accident” unless he changes his approach to racing after being left fuming by the Dutchman’s defensive moves during Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Raikkonen and Verstappen were both forced to pit early on after a clash at the first corner, leaving them together on-track once the race went back to green after a short red flag period.

Verstappen forced Raikkonen off-track at Les Combes when defending his position before making another aggressive move along the Kemmel Straight at 200 mph on the next lap.

Raikkonen immediately complained about Verstappen’s moves over team radio to the Ferrari pit wall in an expletive-laden message.

“I’m all up for fair racing and close battles. But when I have to brake after Eau Rouge before Turn 5, at full speed, when he turns in front of me, that’s not correct in my view,” Raikkonen told NBCSN after the race.

“Obviously FIA looks a different way with the stewards.

“There will be a big accident if this doesn’t stop.

“The rest; I’m fine with fighting. But we should not do stupid things.”

Raikkonen eventually got past Verstappen en route to finish ninth for Ferrari. Verstappen struggled in the closing stages of the race with his damaged car, eventually crossing the line 11th.