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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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”