Smoke’s back: Tony Stewart’s first runs at Daytona ‘like putting on an old pair of shoes’

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Tony Stewart passed his first test and got a solid B for his effort – as in he’s B-A-C-K.

Behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for the first time in nearly 6 ½ months, Stewart  quickly shook off the rust and was right back at home during Friday’s two practice sessions for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

Stewart suffered the worst wreck of his overall racing career last Aug. 5 while competing in a sprint car race in Iowa. He suffered multiple fractures in his right leg, endured three surgeries and – almost an afterthought when you consider the extent of his injuries – missed the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season.

But Friday, Stewart looked – and talked – in his usual form, almost as if nothing had happened to him over the last half-year.

“It felt good,” Stewart said simply about being back in the saddle again. “That is better than I was hoping for, honestly. I thought we would have some kind of ache, pain of some kind that would bother us. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes again.”

Although not one to typically show emotion – unless of course he’s blowing his stack at another driver or reporter – Stewart admitted he broke into a big smile “when we hit the end of pit road leaving,” he said. “That is way too long to wait to get back in a race car that is for sure.”

Stewart was so eager to get back on track – literally and figuratively – that he was a VERY uncharacteristically 18 minutes early to get into his race car.

“Every five minutes I was looking at the clock from 3 o’clock on going, ‘Is it 4:30 yet?’ because I wanted to get dressed at 4:30 and come in,” Stewart said. “That is a long time to be staring at the clock for an hour and a half. That is small compared to the seven months. … I didn’t want to wait anymore, to be honest.”

Stewart admitted he was a bit apprehensive of climbing through the window and into the car for the first time, but not for fear or hesitation, but rather for another key reason.

“Piece of cake, I didn’t fall,” he laughed. “I think that was what everybody was waiting for. If there was ever a time to not screw up it is getting in the car this time. About 400 cameras there so I didn’t want to be the guy that fell out of the car and got on the cover of the paper for that.”

Stewart logged 50 total laps around the 2.5-mile high banks of DIS. In the first session, he covered 24 laps with a top speed of 197.377 mph, good for 10th fastest among the 18 drivers that took part.

In the second and final Sprint Unlimited practice session, Stewart ran the most laps (26) of the 15 drivers that took part, with a top speed of 197.994 mph, good for ninth fastest.

In hindsight, once the first practice session was over, what he thought might be a big deal actually wound up being more of a business-as-usual outcome.

“I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger deal than that,” Stewart said. “That is the good part of it. I didn’t think it would just blend in like it did. It just kind of felt like any other day at the office.  Once we got off pit road and got going and actually got in the pack there, you forgot about all the other stuff and you went back to work. Just got back in the swing of things.

“For somebody who hadn’t been in a car it sure doesn’t feel like I haven’t been in a car. It feels like I was in it a week ago already. I was pleasantly surprised for that.”

Tony being Tony, he gave brief thought to taking part in a nearby short track race later Friday, but quickly wiped the idea from his mind for good reason.

“If I didn’t think Greg Zipadelli (Stewart Haas Racing vice president of competition and Stewart’s former crew chief) would absolutely kill me tonight, I would probably want to go race at Volusia (Speedway) tonight,” Stewart said “It felt that good. I don’t think Zippy would be the only guy. I think the entire organization here would probably duct tape me to the flag pole on the frontstretch so I couldn’t leave.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”