What’s next for Tony Stewart, the person?

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Tony Stewart’s personal future is a serious question mark after the accident Saturday night where driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

His livelihood outside of his usual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series commitments is at stake, because he’s been through a seriously rough stretch of accidents over the last year and a half in dirt track races.

Prior to Saturday night, there’s been a rash of accidents that have swept over Stewart like a tidal wave in the last year and a half.

Last year, he was in a 15-car pileup in New York, flipped his car in Canada and then broke his leg in Iowa, the latter of which sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

And then here’s what happened on Saturday night: Stewart and Ward were racing for position, and as Stewart’s car slid up the road, that contacted Ward and sent the young 20-year-old driver into a spin.

Ward got out of his car, walked down a hot track, and then was contacted by Stewart as he came around the corner on a dimly lit track. The fact the track wasn’t well lit, Ward was in a dark firesuit and dark helmet, and vision out the right side of sprint cars is notoriously bad (limited visibility) all conspired to create a perfect storm of circumstances and ultimately, cost Ward his life.

Stewart has cooperated with law authorities to this point as the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department continues its investigation; the Sheriff said Sunday there was no criminal intent at this time.

Stewart has released a statement, pulled out of driving in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, and drivers have reacted, including fellow Cup champion Dale Jarrett, now a TV analyst for ESPN.

While the legal investigation is still ongoing (here is a link to the court case), how Stewart recovers from this personally will be interesting to witness.

Others (USA Today/NBCSN’s Nate RyanAP’s Jenna FryerSporting News’ Bob Pockrass, veteran Monte Dutton to name but a few) have also noted this, but Stewart and dirt track racing are blood brothers. It’s in his DNA, and it’s something you can’t take out of him, no matter how many times he gets into an accident.

Without a family of his own, Stewart’s passion, hobby and life outside the Cup circuit is, well, the dirt tracks. From those I spoke to over the weekend with knowledge of how Stewart operates, this fuels him and makes him tick.

He derives great enjoyment from these races – it fuels his fire even if it’s coming as a moonlighting guest driver.

His presence can sell more tickets. Local short track races are generally exciting as they are and when a megastar of Stewart’s magnitude joins the show, that only enhances the fan experience.

But the fan experience has been affected as a result of what happened Saturday night. Those who drove in that race, watched from the pits or watched from the stands will have a tough time getting over what they saw.

So too has Stewart, who despite his gruff temperament and legendary temper, still has a big heart – something that’s being written a lot now in the wake of this tragedy – but those who know him know this could not have been done with ill intent.

As it is, Stewart will likely have a long road to recover mentally from what’s happened this weekend.

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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