Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 1 – Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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MotorSportsTalk has counted down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s a full recap of the stories we’ve done in the series:

Today, we conclude the series with our pick of the top story of 2014, the unfortunate tragedy that involved NASCAR star Tony Stewart and aspiring sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

 

Even with the huge accomplishment of Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup championship or the new elimination format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s hard not to point to the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy as the top story in NASCAR in 2014.

Granted, the incident happened on a small upstate New York dirt track, and was not a sanctioned NASCAR track or NASCAR event.

But the significance of the news of Ward being killed when he was accidentally struck by Stewart’s sprint car while a race was underway, and the subsequent events that transpired afterward, was something that dominated the NASCAR news not just for days, but for several weeks.

On the evening of August 9, Ward and Stewart were racing side-by-side when Ward lost control of his sprint car and slammed into the outside retaining wall.

Apparently believing Stewart forced him into the wreck, Ward committed perhaps the biggest mistake any race car driver can do – and one that drivers are constantly warned about.

Ward exited his car and came down the racetrack in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The only problem with that is the race was still under way, albeit under caution, and Ward inadvertently stepped into the path of Stewart’s car, was struck and killed.

source: Getty Images
(Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

The incident made worldwide news and was perhaps one of the most divisive topics the sport has seen in many years. On one side were the loyal Stewart fans, who believed it was simply a racing accident, an unfortunate event that resulted in the sad and tragic loss of a fellow driver’s life.

Then there was the other side, those who criticized Stewart and held him responsible for Ward’s death. They called for criminal charges, prison and the immediate end of his racing career.

Many left comments on MotorSportsTalk, vehemently espousing their own opinions pro or con against Stewart.

An Ontario County (N.Y.) Grand Jury was convened and for several weeks deliberated the evidence from the incident, as well as testimony from witnesses.

In the end, the Grand Jury absolved Stewart of any potential criminal charges or liability in Ward’s death. Ward’s family still has the option to bring a civil suit against Stewart, but to date that has not happened.

Stewart missed the three NASCAR Sprint Cup races immediately following the Ward tragedy and remained in seclusion for that period.

He finally returned to racing at Atlanta but finished a disappointing 41st due to a wreck he was involved in.

source: Getty Images
Tony Stewart returned to racing at Atlanta, nearly three weeks after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

From that point on, Stewart competed in 11 more races to wrap up the 2014 season, earning just one top-five finish.

Overall, Stewart had arguably the worst single season performance of his career (not including 2013, when he missed the final 15 races due to injuries suffered in a sprint car wreck) in 2014.

He failed to win even one race in a season for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. He also finished with a career low three top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Stewart began 2014 still not completely recovered from his 2013 accident injuries. And even though he drove with pain, he never let the pain drive him out and away from behind the steering wheel.

Stewart has had two surgeries during the current off-season, with hopes that he’ll be in much better shape to start the 2015 season – certainly in better shape than the way he began 2014.

Will Stewart be able to bounce back to his old championship- and race-winning form in 2015? It would be a great storyline for him to come right out of the gate and win the season-opening Daytona 500, one of the few things in his long career that Stewart has failed to achieve.

In a sense, he’s his generation’s Dale Earnhardt when it comes to winning the Great American Race. It took Earnhardt 20 tries before finally winning his first (and ultimately only) Daytona 500.

Stewart will make his 17th Daytona 500 start this coming season. What better way to put all the sadness and darkness of the past two seasons behind him and to show any doubters that he still has it as a driver than to win at Daytona.

And then bookend that season start by finishing it with his fourth Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

Stewart has endured considerable pain, tragedy and sadness over the past two seasons. Will he be able to recover and return to the Smoke of old, the same one who has three championships and 48 race wins in the Cup series?

Only time will tell. But if there’s anyone who can come back from what he’s gone through, Stewart can.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Rossi remains ‘The Story’ in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”