“Smoke” rises to occasion with big Dover triumph

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Tony Stewart had been soldiering through a dismal Sprint Cup season, and he figured that he was going to soldier through a trying Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

“Yesterday when we finished [final practice], I’ll be 100 percent perfectly honest…I was preparing for a very long day today,” said Stewart, who entered the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks in 20th place in the standings.

“I wasn’t prepared to be sitting here…I honestly didn’t think we could get there from where we ended up [in final practice] yesterday. But I’m proud to be sitting here saying that I was very wrong and happy that I was wrong.”

Stewart had finished no better than 20th in his last four races at the “Monster Mile,” but found himself in a position to battle for the win after Jimmie Johnson was penalized for jumping the final restart of the day with 19 laps to go.

That left Juan Pablo Montoya in the lead, but Stewart charged toward the Colombian and with three laps left, he passed him on the outside and went on to his first victory of the season.

See what happens when you keep battling?

“There’s been a lot of dejected guys all year, and disappointed guys all year, but that’s why we want them working at Stewart‑Haas Racing, too, because the way we have been running, we want them to be disappointed and dejected,” said Stewart of his team’s trying 2013 campaign.

“But nobody is walking around with their heads down. They are all trying to find a solution and that’s what makes days like today so special, when you have guys that just do not quit and they refuse to give up.”

With one bright day, the year has changed for the three-time Cup champion. He jumped four spots in the standings to 16th, but more importantly, his win now puts him in the discussion for a possible wild-card berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The two drivers between 11th and 20th in the championship that have the most wins get those particular spots, and as of now, he’s the only one in that bracket with a win. Of course, Stewart wants more than that. He’d much rather be solidly in the Top 10 and also help his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick turn their own efforts around as well.

“We realize that this could put [my team] in contention and make the Chase – that’s not good enough,” he said. “I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers have a feeling and an opportunity to go to the racetrack every week and feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result at the end of the day.”

Nevertheless, “Smoke” has some momentum on his side with a Top-10 result at Charlotte last weekend and now a win in his pocket in Delaware. Perhaps he and Stewart-Haas Racing are ready to make a run as the summer comes along once again.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.