Tony Stewart speaks, cites overwhelming support in the search of return to normalcy

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Tony Stewart has addressed the media in full for the first time since the August 9 accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr., and since Stewart was cleared by a Grand Jury of all legal charges last week.

While Stewart had had a written statement in the immediate aftermath, a brief response upon his return to the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway and a several-part interview with the Associated Press last week, he had not fully addressed the media in a news conference until Monday morning.

Questions related to the accident itself, however, were off limits. Stewart-Haas Racing PR chief Mike Arning said the statements from Michael Tantillo, the Ontario County (N.Y.) District Attorney, last week outlined the facts of the incident itself.

Still, there were some elements revealed from this press conference.

Stewart confirmed he had seen the video of the accident.

He also said he would be available to speak to Kevin Ward Jr.’s family if they want to speak with him; however, he said he would not need to speak to them for closure.

Asked if he could do anything different, Stewart said simply, “I’d have stayed at Watkins Glen that night. I do this stuff to have a good time. That’s all I wanted to do that night.

“I just wanted to go run my sprint car for a night. It didn’t end up being fun that night.”

Stewart dismissed retirement talk, when asked if that was an option. While he reiterated what he told the AP in terms of his not racing sprint cars for a while, he said he can’t quit what he’s done his whole life, for 36+ years.

“Right now I couldn’t give you a small idea of when I’ll get back in. I won’t be in for a while,” Stewart said of his sprint car driving presence.

“There was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me,” he said.

Stewart spoke of his struggles in managing his Sprint Cup race team, Stewart-Haas Racing, and all his sprint car products, be it race teams or Eldora Speedway.

“I’ve let my team down from that standpoint. I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader, but that’s all I’ve been the last seven weeks,” he said of SHR.

On the dirt track side: “I’ve watched and paid attention, but I haven’t been engaged in it.. Watched online at Eldora, listened online. But I haven’t been engaged with the teams or drivers.”

Stewart said sponsors have been supportive throughout the process; communication with Johnny Morris (Bass Pro Shops) and Mobil 1 has been positive.

Stewart’s last seven weeks, especially at the outset, had mainly been in seclusion. He said days were going by slower, and he did not want to do much of anything.

“The first three days, I didn’t get out of bed, didn’t care if I took a shower,” he said. “I had to force myself to get food. First 3-4 days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Finally started moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier. Didn’t have any desire to do anything. You asked yourself ‘Why, why did this happen.’

“It’s been awkward because I know what a typical day was like for me, and what I thought about. You get in a pattern. This was something that changed that pattern. It won’t get back to normal, but it will get better.”

Still, the overriding message Stewart had Monday was of the level of support he has received from the NASCAR garage, community and fans, in what has been a trying and difficult seven weeks.

“Initially, I was hurt by some of the things I read,” Stewart said. “But it’s people who don’t know me, and never spent time with me. They ran with it based on what was presented or if they were people who didn’t like me to begin with. I really stopped wasting my time worrying about it. That’s all that matters.”

Stewart also thanked drivers for reaching out and the fans for welcoming him back when he was introduced ahead of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series return at Atlanta.

“Honestly I thought I had walked out in Dale Jr.’s spot,” he joked. “But it was very overwhelming. I’m glad I had sunglasses on. It was the one of the most flattering, humbling parts of my career to have that kind of reception.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”