Tony Stewart finally looks like the Smoke of old at Martinsville

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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.”

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.