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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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”