Tony Stewart finally looks like the Smoke of old at Martinsville

1 Comment

On a track that is the oldest in NASCAR, Tony Stewart went vintage and retro in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Driving perhaps the best race he’s had in a very difficult season, Stewart dug deep to look like the Smoke of old, finishing fourth, tying his best performance – and only his third top-five showing – of the season. In 31 career starts at the half-mile bullring, Stewart now has three wins, 10 top-five and 16 top-1o finishes in his Cup career.

Stewart came up short again of extending his own personal record of at least one win in the last 16 seasons, but with the way he drove Sunday, it bodes well for him still to take the checkered flag at Texas (two career wins), Phoenix (one) or Homestead (three wins).

The biggest key for Stewart’s strong finish was the decision to follow the race leaders – including eventual winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and runner-up Jeff Gordon onto pit road with less than 10 laps to go.

Each driver took four tires and a splash of fuel. It worked out best for Junior and Gordon, but Stewart has nothing to be ashamed of.

“If we had to do that 100 times over, we would have done the same thing,” Stewart told ESPN. “We had nothing to lose. It was worth the gamble.

“Where we were at in fifth, you didn’t know what was going to happen, who would have taken two tires, something could have happened on the pit stop, a lot of variables could have gone wrong there.

“I’d rather have taken the chance and fight at the end of that. We still ended up a spot better than we were when that caution came out.”

Stewart has gone through the two most challenging seasons of his career.

In 2013, his season was cut short after 21 of the scheduled 36 races when he suffered a severely broken leg in a sprint car wreck.

In 2014, Stewart was already having a less than normal season when he was involved in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, prompting him to miss three races out of respect to the late racer.

But even when he came back for the Labor Day race at Atlanta, Stewart still continued to struggle.

In the eight races since he returned following the Ward tragedy, Stewart finished 41 (Atlanta), 15 (Richmond), 18 (Chicago), 30 (Loudon), 14 (Dover), 17 (Kansas), 21 (Charlotte) and 34 (Talladega).

But Sunday at a track Stewart used to hate early in his career, he finally broke through with his best showing since finishing fifth at Fontana in the fifth race of the season, and tying his best outing of fourth, the week before that at Bristol.

Stewart looked substantially relieved after Sunday’s race, and while he did the obligatory thanking to his crew for its hard work and sticking with him, Stewart also gave credit to those who also stick with him race in and race out, from one season to the next.

“Our fans, they have been plowing a tough road for the last 18 months,” Stewart said. “This top-five is for the fans.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
Leave a comment

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.”