Tony Stewart will not race today; Regan Smith to drive No. 14 (UPDATED with NASCAR statement)

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UPDATE, 11:15 a.m. ET: NASCAR has just issued a statement on the situation:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”

In a short press conference this morning at Watkins Glen International, Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli confirmed that Tony Stewart will not compete in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355.

Zipadelli said that NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith, who has made 171 career Sprint Cup starts, will fill in for Stewart in the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet.

This decision comes after Zipadelli reportedly told USA Today that Sunday would be “business as usual” for the No. 14 team.

Stewart was involved in an incident Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park in which he struck and killed an on-foot driver during a sprint car event.

“It’s just a unbelievable tragedy,” Zipadelli said this morning. “Our hearts go out to obviously Kevin and his family, thoughts and prayers. This is a very tough, very emotional time for everybody – his family, our family, Stewart Haas, Tony Stewart.

“So, with that being said, we feel as a group – Tony will not drive today. Regan Smith is on his way up. NASCAR has approved for him to get in the race car today. They’re gonna do everything they can to help us expedite getting his seat so he can be comfortable.

“That’s kind of what we’ve been working on and trying to get executed – get Regan here and obviously, anything we can do for Tony and everybody else. It’s just an emotional time right now.”

Zipadelli said that he met with Stewart this morning, and that “he feels strongly that this is the right thing to do.”

“We at SHR support it and agree with it,” he said. “Like I said, it’s a difficult time for both parties. There’s not a lot you can do. The only thing we can do is do what we feel is right, and this is what we feel is right. We’re supporting Tony in it.”

Stewart was to start 13th in today’s event and was still seeking to earn a regular season win that would put him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

However, by not starting today’s race, he will be eliminated from post-season contention.

But Zipadelli insisted that the Chase scenario was “the furthest thing from our minds right now” and today was simply about getting through the race “the best we can as a group.”

“There’s a few of us who were in there just supporting him,” he added. “He’s a brother to me…He’s way more than a boss. He’s going through a tough time and it’s emotional for him. Like I said, as a group, we support him.

“We feel like he’s doing the right thing, and we’ll move on from this.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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