Lessons learned from Dale Earnhardt death readily seen in way NASCAR has dealt with Tony Stewart tragedy

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HAMPTON, Ga. — While it did not occur on its watch or under its jurisdiction, NASCAR has still been forced to deal with the fallout of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

Because one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, Tony Stewart, was involved, the sanctioning body was brought into the fray by default.

Unless they were in a cave the last three weeks, many casual observers to even non-motorsports fans have been made aware of the incident by almost non-stop news coverage.

And many of those same observers or non-fans have the mistaken misconception that because Ward was killed on a race track in an incident with a NASCAR driver, that somehow NASCAR was involved.

That’s simply not the case. The race on August 9 in upstate New York was on a dirt track and in a race series that has no association with NASCAR whatsoever.

Complicating the issue for the casual observers and non-motorsports fans is the fact that Ward was killed in a sprint car race, which sounds too close to a race in NASCAR’s premier series, the Sprint Cup Series.

You can see the confusion quite readily.

With Stewart having sat out the last three races – Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – to grieve himself as well as not race out of respect to the young Ward, NASCAR had to both deal with the fallout of what happened to Stewart as well as prepare for his eventual return.

That return has come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And before Stewart climbed back into his No. 14 Chevrolet, NASCAR enlisted several outside professionals to assure that Stewart was mentally, emotionally and physically ready to get behind the wheel.

In a sense, NASCAR has had to deal with the Stewart situation in a similar fashion as when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The sanctioning body had to close ranks inward to not only deal with the mourning and grief related to Earnhardt’s death, but also had to devise a plan to keep the series moving forward.

It’s been kind of the same way with Stewart. Although he was not killed, he was involved in an incident where another driver lost his life.

In both Stewart’s and Earnhardt’s case, there were resulting investigations, questions about safety and enhanced enforcement of existing rules.

Most notably, just days after the Stewart-Ward incident, NASCAR made it very clear to all competitors across not only its three professional series but all of its sportsman series as well, that it would ratchet up enforcement over drivers getting out of their wrecked race cars before a safety crew arrived on-scene.

NASCAR said it would significantly increase the potential for monetary and points penalties to keep drivers in their cars until assisted out.

The only exception is if a race car was on fire or a driver was in imminent danger of being further involved in yet another wreck not of his or her making (like being on the other side of a blind hill or turn on a road course).

Now that he is back racing, don’t think that NASCAR has ended its oversight of Stewart or actions of other drivers. If NASCAR subsequently believes that Stewart still isn’t fully recovered or healed from especially the mental and emotional parts of the Ward incident, it can park him just as easily as it reinstated him.

Through Friday and Saturday’s practice sessions, as well as Friday’s qualifying round, there was no reason to think such would occur. Stewart qualified 12th for Sunday night’s race at AMS and appears to be as close to being back to normal – at least from a racing perspective – as he was prior to the Ward tragedy.

NASCAR learned a lot of lessons after Earnhardt’s death and, while the circumstances of Stewart’s incident are significantly different, even more lessons have been learned over the last three weeks.

And the end result is the same:

NASCAR takes the responsibility to make its racing as safe as humanly possible very, very seriously.

The sport hurt for a long time after Earnhardt passed away, needing more than a year to mourn and grieve, but it ultimately survived and carried on.

It, too, will eventually get through the Stewart situation. It’s all part of the healing process for everyone.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Rolex 24 Team Preview – GTLM

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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MotorSportsTalk’s Kyle Lavigne continues the team preview of entries for the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. At nine entries, it is the smallest of the three classes entered in this weekend’s Rolex 24 and down from last year’s 11 entries, but past events indicate it may be the event’s most competitive class.

The 2017 Rolex 24 saw four different marques from four different teams battling for the GTLM win late in the race, with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing taking the win with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais. And in 2016, Corvette Racing saw its No. 3 and 4 entries duel to the checkered flag, with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fassler victorious in the No. 4 machine.

Below is a breakdown of the teams entered in the GTLM class.

Corvette Racing
Car: Corvette C7.R
No. 3 (Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, Mike Rockenfeller)
No. 4 (Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler)

Outlook: Corvette Racing has been a perennial powerhouse in GT racing over the entirety of the 21st century, and that isn’t something that’s likely to change. Coming off their 13th championship last year – Garcia and Magnussen took home last year’s GTLM driver’s crown – Corvette Racing now hunts for its fourth Rolex 24 triumph.

With an unchanged package that is proven to be both fast and reliable, Corvette Racing looks set to again feature prominently in the GTLM battle. Barring problems, both cars should be battling up front for the win.

BMW Team RLL
Car: BMW M8 GTLM
No. 24 (Jesse Krohn, John Edwards, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus)
No. 25 (Alexander Sims, Connor De Phillippi, Bill Auberlen, Philipp Eng)

Outlook: Of all the GTLM entries, BMW Team RLL sees by far the most change to its program. Out is the M6 GTLM and in is the brand new M8 GTLM. Jesse Krohn, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus, Philipp Eng and Connor De Phillippi are all new drivers to the team, while veteran Bill Auberlen will only contest the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018.

At the Roar Before the 24, the program appeared to lack speed. Sunday qualifying, to decide pit stall and garage selection, saw the No. 25 qualify the better of the two BMWs, but one second slower than the next quickest car – the BMW set a 1:45.056 for seventh in GTLM, behind the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, which set a 1:44.037.

It remains to be seen if there is more speed in the BMW machines, but they remain the most unproven of the GTLM entries. A victory seems out of reach at the moment, but that could change if the package improves.

Risi Competizione
Car: Ferrari 488 GTE
No. 62 (Toni Vilander, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Davide Rigon)

Outlook: Risi Competizione came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s Rolex, but a late-race battle between James Calado and Dirk Mueller, of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, saw Mueller come out on top, while Calado was shuffled back to third by the time the checkered flag fell.

They did not win an event last year, but this is a team that knows how to win big races – they have previously won the Motul Petit Le Mans – and should once again prove to be a major player in the GTLM battle.

The only major change comes in their driver lineup, with Alessandro Pier Guidi and David Rigon joining the lineup and Giancarlo Fisichella departing. But, with Calado and Toni Vilander returning to anchor the driving team, this change is not expected to slow the team down. Expect them to battle at the front all race long.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing
Car: Ford GT
No. 66 (Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Sebastien Bourdais)
No. 67 (Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon)

Outlook: Ford Chip Ganassi Racing returns to the Rolex 24 as defending race winners – Hand, Mueller, and Bourdais delivered the victory in 2017. Further, they return with the same driver lineups and car they used. In short, every indication is that they enter this year’s event as favorites to repeat.

The Roar Before the 24 gave further evidence of this. Both of the cars were among the quickest in every session at the Roar, and Sunday qualifying saw its No. 66 end up at the top of the board, with the No. 67 in third.

The GTLM field is strong all the way around, but this team is likely the favorite entering the event.

Porsche GT Team
Car: Porsche 911 RSR

No. 911 (Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Frederic Makowiecki)
No. 912 (Laurens Vanthoor, Earl Bamber, Gianmaria Bruni)

Outlook: Porsche GT Team brings with it a star-studded driver lineup that features former class winners of the Rolex 24, former overall winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and a ton of all-around talent.

The team finished a close second at last year’s Rolex 24, with the No. 911 entry, behind the race-winning Ford from Chip Ganassi’s stable. Later that year, they visited victory lane – Porsche finished 1-2 at Lime Rock Park, with the No. 911 taking the victory – proving that the mid-engine 911 RSR is more than up to the task and gives the team everything they need to be contenders.

Porsche will have a fight on their hands, but this is a team that expects to compete for a victory, and they did win this event in 2014. They round out a titanic GTLM grid and should be a fixture throughout the day.

Follow@KyleMLavigne