Tony Stewart’s comeback hopes end with rough 41st-place finish at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – It was not the comeback that Tony Stewart had hoped for.

Having missed the last three races due to the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, Stewart’s hopes of a strong run and finish in Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 ended with a disappointing 41st-place finish Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart started strong, moving from his No. 12 qualifying position up to as high as fourth place early in the 325-lap race.

But an incident with Kyle Busch on Lap 122 all but ended Stewart’s chances for a possible chance at a win or even a top-five.

Things got even worse on Lap 172, but before we get to that, a look first at the good parts of the evening for the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet:

Starting 12th, Stewart drove like he was piloting a rocket as soon as the green flag dropped. He was up to ninth after just two laps, up to seventh after four and up to sixth after six laps.

In other words, he gained an average of one position on each of the first six laps.

MORE: Tony Stewart the obvious fan favorite during pre-race introductions at Atlanta

He eventually climbed up to fourth by Lap 16, and remained in that spot until the first caution on Lap 38 (due to debris).

Stewart got caught in traffic on pit road and dropped back one spot to fifth place when the green flag fell on Lap 44, and then fell back two more spots to seventh on the following lap.

Stewart essentially floated between 5th and 11th for nearly the next 80 laps before Busch cut off and made contact with Stewart on Lap 122.

Busch appeared to try and slide up in front of Stewart, but seemed to misjudge the distance between the two cars.

While there was no caution flag, both drivers suffered damage on the right sides of their respective cars.

Both cars came into the pits one lap later when Marcos Ambrose suffered engine, bringing out a caution flag.

Stewart was forced to make several stops under caution to get the right side damage repaired, while Busch was able to have his damage fixed on just one stop.

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

As it turned out, Stewart remained on the lead lap in 21st position until Lap 161 when race leader Matt Kenseth passed him, putting Stewart one lap down.

Things went from bad to worse on Lap 172 when Stewart’s car ran into the Turn 2 wall, sustaining significant damage. He took his car back to the garage and it appeared his night was over at that point.

“Sorry guys, you deserve better than this,” Stewart said to his crew over the team radio as he limped into the pits with extensive damage to the right front, including a shredding right front tire.

Stewart declined to be interviewed after taking his car, but crew chief Chad Johnston spoke with ESPN afterward.

“We got off to a good start,” Johnston said. “We went into today with hopes of finishing pretty well and possibly a win, but it just didn’t work out in our favor.

“It’s really good to have (Stewart) back … it’s kind of his homecoming back. We wish we could have had a better result and effort, but we’ll try to get it done at Richmond (next Saturday).”

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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.”