Bass Pro Shops chief glad to see close friend Tony Stewart racing again

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Tony Stewart has had to call upon and rely on his family and friends to get through the last three weeks following the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

One of Stewart’s closest friends is not just his fishing buddy, he’s also founder and president of one of Stewart’s primary sponsors on the No. 14 Chevrolet – namely, Johnny Morris, president and CEO of Bass Pro Shops.

Morris’ roots to Atlanta Motor Speedway run long. It’s there that BPS sponsored several races over the years, including presenting one of the most unique trophies to race winners that the sports world has ever seen: typically a stuffed animal like a hulking grizzly bear.

Because of those long roots to AMS and his friendship to Stewart, Morris took the unusual step of releasing a statement offering support to his long-time friend.

Here is Morris’ full statement:

“Today our thoughts are with our friend and fishing buddy Tony Stewart as he prepares to return to racing after what has been a difficult time in his life,” Morris’ statement began. “Our hearts go out to him and to the family and friends of Kevin Ward Jr., who died in the tragic sprint car event accident on August 9.

“I was able to spend time with Tony last week and it made my heart ache to see him so devastated by this incident.

“Like many other race fans, I love Tony’s passion and still on the track and to watch this fierce competitor compete. But the off-track Tony Stewart is the man that I have come to respect. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed Tony’s quiet generosity and compassion as he gives to others. By personally supporting numerous programs like Catch-A-Dream Foundation and Victory Junction, Tony has given many ailing children a chance to experience outdoor sports and have fun opportunities they might not otherwise have.

“His love of racing goes far beyond his work behind the wheel. It is common for Tony to sign autographs for each and every race fan for hours on end. Behind the scenes, Tony continually steps in to help junior drivers get started in racing because he cares about the sport and its fans.

“What started as a sponsorship discussion between Tony and I fifteen years ago has turned into a long and special friendship. It’s a friendship that has given me the opportunity to get to know one of the most compassionate and kind-hearted individuals I have ever met.

“On behalf of the Bass Pro Family, and as Tony’s friend, we are proud to stand by him as he returns this weekend to the sport he loves so much.”

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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.