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Stewart Will Not Be Celebrating This Anniversary

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 7 2015
Tony Stewart is returning to upstate New York this weekend as a changed man. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Tony Stewart is returning to Upstate New York this weekend as a changed man. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Tony Stewart says he has returned to Watkins Glen International this weekend a different man than the one who last competed on the historic, Upstate New York road-course in the summer of 2012.

sprint-logo-08“I don’t think I will ever be the same from what happened the last two years,” said Stewart, referencing a pair of life-altering incidents that have physically and emotionally scarred the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

“I don’t know how you could be (the same),” Stewart said Wednesday during a charity event bearing his nickname at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “I don’t know how anybody ever could be back to exactly the way they were. But not being back exactly the same as I was doesn’t mean that I’ve become better in some ways; I think there’s always positives that
come out of every scenario.”

In 2013, Stewart was sidelined when the Cup tour rolled into New York’s Finger Lakes Region after breaking his right leg in a Sprint Car accident on Aug. 5 at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa.

Stewart withdrew from last year’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 10, a few  hours after the Sprint Car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during a Saturday night dirt-track race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.

“I’m trying to not think about it,” Stewart politely said during a media session prior to hosting his annual “Smoke Show” Fantasy Camp benefitting Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter. “You (media) guys are the first ones to bring it up this week.”

Stewart was indulging his passion for dirt-track racing when he entered his No. 14 Sprint Car into the weekly Saturday night program in Canandaigua, located about 50 miles northwest of WGI.  The night went awry when contact from Stewart’s winged, open-wheel car sent Ward’s Sprinter spinning into a wall. Ward hurriedly exited the cockpit and walked onto the track in his black driver’s uniform, angrily gesturing at Stewart’s car. A wheel from Stewart’s car inadvertently struck Ward, launching him into the air as parents Kevin Sr. and Pamela watched in horror.

A native of Rome, N.Y., and resident of Port Leyden, Ward was the Empire Super Sprint Rookie of the Year in 2012. His dream was to eventually compete in the World of Outlaws, the nation’s top series for lightweight, high-horsepower Sprint Cars. Instead, family and friends gathered for Ward’s funeral on Aug. 14 at South Lewis Senior High School, from which Ward was graduated in 2012.

“Unfortunately, I have a feeling it’s going to get brought up a lot this week,” Stewart said. “But it doesn’t help you continue to go forward with it.” Stewart was not asked about Ward or his parents by name during the media session.

Stewart subsequently cooperated with Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s deputies investigating the fatality. An Ontario County grand jury did not indict Stewart for his involvement in the accident, determining there was insufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges.

Stewart qualified seventh and finished 19th in his most recent start on The Glen’s 2.45-mile/11-turn natural-terrain/short-course layout in 2012. But Stewart remains WGI’s all-time NASCAR leader in victories with five (2002, 2004-05, 2007, 2009), one more than four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

Stewart sits 25th in driver points after 21 Cup events and clearly needs a victory in the next five races to qualify for the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format that begins at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 20. Sunday’s 220.5-mile/90-lapper at WGI looms as Stewart’s next-best-shot at snapping a 62-race winless streak.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Stewart, who has seven top-five and 10 top-10 results at The Glen. “It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks. I mean, we’ve had really, really good luck there. I’m actually praying for rain on Sunday. I don’t know why, but I have my heart set on racing in the rain at The Glen. I’m hoping somewhere in the equation we can figure out how to make it rain.” Goodyear Racing has stock-piled its wet weather Eagle radials for the event, which has been plagued by a history of showers.

Stewart’s 225 laps-led at WGI are second only to Gordon’s 262. And Stewart’s starting average of 6.286 is tops among Cup regulars. But Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS, cautioned those stats were compiled before NASCAR’s switch to the current generation Cup car.

“I don’t know that we’ll know until we get out and practice,” said Stewart, referring to a pair of Friday sessions that will lead into qualifying on Saturday afternoon. “The thing is they’re still race cars, no matter what generation car it is. I’ve driven so many different types of cars, it’s either going to be tight, loose or it’s going to four-wheel drift and we’ll adjust on it from there. I don’t think it’ll be a big deal.”

Stewart’s winless season includes only two top-10 results as he admittedly has struggled to come to grips with the handful of aerodynamic tweaks instituted by NASCAR this season.

“The whole season’s been frustrating,” said Stewart, co-owner/driver of a Stewart-Haas Racing stable that includes reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick, 2004 champ Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. “It’s kind of been a double-edged sword because you’ve got two of your drivers that are running really well each week (Harvick and Busch) and two of us (he and Patrick) that aren’t where we want to be yet. On one side it’s encouraging because you know that the organization’s capable of doing it. The other side of the coin is you’re frustrated because you can’t figure it out yourself.”

Stewart is looking to avoid the embarrassment of missing the Chase for a third consecutive year. “It’s never a guarantee and it’s not a guarantee it’s going to happen this time either,” said Stewart, alluding the NASCAR’s 10-race post-season. “You at least have that in the back of your mind, that you have been able to do it before and it can be done. So it doesn’t leave you with a feeling that the rest of the year is not salvageable.”

Stewart qualified fourth at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway two weeks ago en route to a 28th-place finish; “Smoke” started fifth and finished ninth at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway last Sunday.

“I’m optimistic at least,” said Stewart, whose resume features 48 Cup victories. “I don’t know what I’m going to say this week that was different than a couple of weeks ago. Two weeks of qualifying really doesn’t change anything. I shouldn’t say it doesn’t change anything. We ran decent last week and I think that was a positive sign but it’s way too early to say that we’ve really…you know, for moving the needle a week or two weeks, that’s a good thing to do it two weeks in a row but I don’t know that that means we’ve got it all figured out yet. I wish I knew what to say, I’m just not really sure yet.”

Stewart’s “Smoke Show” Fantasy Camp originally was launched with media members but since has become a popular day-long adventure for NASCAR fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

“I think riding with me (three hot laps) is the cherry on top. But for me, watching them compete against each other is the fun part,” said Stewart, referring to 20 total timed laps in a Team Texas stock car around TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval. “That’s what this really is about…giving them an idea of what it’s like in the day in the life of a driver. When you see them get as competitive as we do at the end of the day, some of the comments are pretty comical. And if the wives do outrun the husbands, I bring that to everyone’s attention _ just because it’s the right thing to do.

“I don’t think we anticipated how it was going to grow. It amazes me how many people have done it and keep coming back every year and supporting it. And that’s what’s cool about it. That’s why we do it. It’s great to see that kind of support for an event that’s lasted that long. It’s hard to re-invent it every year and it’s hard to freshen-it-up and make it new and something different. This crowd today, they’re a great group of people. They’re a lot of fun to be around.”

Since its inception in 2009, the “Smoke Show” has become Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter’s largest grossing single-day event of the year. Overall, it has raised more than $1-million.

“As time has gone on, I look forward to doing this more and more because of getting to know a lot of these people on a more personal basis now,” Stewart said. “They’re really the heroes of the deal. It’s a day out of my life but it’s a lot of money these people spend and it goes to a great cause. If it wasn’t for them it wouldn’t be successful; doesn’t matter how many days I donate if they don’t come do this. They’re the heroes of the day, they’re the ones that made it what it is. I just come along to have fun.”

Stewart’s business interests, of course, extend to his ownership of Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, which recently played host to NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. Stewart said his various charitable/business ventures with SHR and the famed Eldora oval serve as welcomed diversions.

“I’ve been a (race-team) owner since 2001, so I’ve been an owner longer than most people realize,” said Stewart, a 44-year-old resident of Columbus, Ind. “I’ve won more championships as an owner than I ever did as a driver so far. There’s no way I could even catch up as a driver from the owner’s side.

“But first and foremost I was always a racer first. The rest of it softens it up a little bit, but it doesn’t in any way, shape or form replace the frustration.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 7 2015
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