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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IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.