Stewart ’embarrassed’ by quarrel, glad to be home

Hamlin feels good at Daytona testing; Johnson yet to plot strategy for sixth title

By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM
January 20, 2011 7:56 PM, EST


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On Thursday morning at Daytona International Speedway driver/owner Tony Stewart practiced his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, then met with his friends in the media and signed some autographs.

Stewart, who mixed sprint car racing with
touring while out of the country, said he was happy to be back in a
familiar environment after a month-long vacation in Australia. But after
one introductory statement, Stewart was called upon to clarify an
“altercation” he had with a race track owner on his trip’s final night
and his subsequent visit with the local Australian police.

Preseason Thunder Fan Fest

Stewart was perfectly calm when he explained
the situation, but the fact that six of the 12 questions he answered
dealt with Australia and not NASCAR — and that he’s not sure the
matter’s completely closed — remain troubling as he tries to plan a
championship strategy beginning with next month’s 53rd Daytona 500 — a
race he’s never won in 12 attempts.

“I’m not concerned about [having to go back],”
Stewart said. “If there is and we have to go back, we’ll deal with it.
But it’s nothing that we’re concerned with at this point. Like I said,
when they were done with us, they said we were able to go back to the
hotel and were able get on our flight and come back [to the U.S.].

“I made sure that they knew exactly where we
were staying, when our flight was, what the flight number was and how to
get a hold of us the whole time. We’ll deal with it, if anything else
comes about.”

Stewart, who owns legendary Eldora Speedway in
Rossburg, Ohio and is a partner in a couple other short tracks, said by
no means was he summarily dismissing the incident, which occurred after
his hot lap session and before his heat race was scheduled to take the
track. Stewart explained Thursday the disagreement was about the track
surface’s safety.

“It definitely wasn’t the way I wanted to end my
trip,” Stewart said. “It’s not uncommon to see drivers and track owners
have disputes over what’s going on, but this one went a little bit
further than a normal dispute.

“I’m home, and I’m back doing things that are
getting my mind off of it, obviously. Like I said, this isn’t something
that I’ve blown off. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it because I’m very
embarrassed that I made it through a whole trip and the night before I
come home I get in an altercation with somebody, and that really hasn’t
happened for a while.

“I’m not at all the least bit proud of it — I’m
ashamed about it, but at the same time it’s been nice to get back with
the team and it’s nice to come down here and worry about driving the
race car again. And it’s not that it’s making me forget about it — but
it’s at least getting my mind off of it enough to relax.”

Stewart, who said if he had to deal with it
again, would react much differently, also said the police were “cordial
and very professional,” and even said he would “love to” go back to
Australia again.

“Like I said, except for the last night we had
an excellent trip, again,” Stewart said. “That’s the most time that I’ve
ever been able to spend at one time, and even though the weather wasn’t
very nice it was still a good vacation. I woke up every day not to a
ringing telephone, so it was nice to get away on a good vacation — and I
still want to go back and still want to go back and race. I’m glad this
will be over with soon, hopefully.”

Jimmie Johnson said Thursday he feels the No. 48 team will be stronger and better than in years past. Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson said Thursday he feels the No. 48 team will be stronger and better than in years past.

 Jimmie Johnson said Thursday he had yet to formulate a strategy for winning title No. 6.

“It’s obviously a new year, a new set of
challenges [and] it’s awfully early to even understand what the
challenges are going to be,” Johnson said. “We hope that we’re smarter
through all the hard work that we’ve been going through in the off
season, but we just won’t know until we get actually really leave
Daytona and get to Phoenix and on and on from there.”

Johnson mentioned Hendrick Motorsports was
working on his pit crew, but a team representative relayed a message
from crew chief Chad Knaus that the makeup of Johnson’s over-the-wall
crew was still being determined. That became a source of controversy
during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup when Knaus swapped his
over-the-wall crew for teammate Jeff Gordon‘s.

“We’re working hard on all fronts to be a better
race team,” Johnson said. “I think that last year we learned a lot more
about ourselves and kind of validated our core beliefs and stuck to
what the 48 team is known for and what we believe in and was still able
to overcome a lot of adversity and win a championship.

“I feel like we’ll be stronger and better, but
we just don’t know until we get into the meat of the season — and the
first goal is obviously to make the Chase — and from there figure out
how to win again.”

And to that point, Johnson said his new shop-mate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has already made a big difference in the pre-season preparation, in what might seem a subtle way.

“In the shop, I guess the biggest thing we’ve
been working on is just the driver’s compartment,” Johnson said. “Trying
to make sure with both cars being built, in that same shop, that we can
use the same dash, seats — things like that — and with us, we both
seem to like a similar seat angle and placement, which will then allow
us to have the dashboards in the same spot, and it’s going to simplify
the shop. We’re just kind of working through the final stages of that

“With Jeff [Gordon, who shared the shop with
Johnson since he came into the sport] being shorter and the seat angle
he had, our cars were pretty different. Right now we’re trying to make
it kind of a common cockpit through the shop and working through that.”

Championship planning

It’s no surprise to anyone that, with NASCAR’s
new mandate on its 2011 driver licensing forms that competitors in its
three national series had to select a single championship for which
they’d compete, Carl Edwards would opt to race for the Sprint Cup title.

Edwards, who finished second in the past three
Nationwide Series seasons, made a face Thursday when asked if he would
have preferred to have been “grandfathered into” being able to run for
both, since he’s run both series, full-time, for the past six years.

“Yes, that would have been great for me and Brad
[Keselowski, 2010 Nationwide champ], and I don’t know who else is maybe
planning on running — but we’re going to run for the Cup
championship,” Edwards said. “We’re going to start on our 60 team
running for the [Nationwide] championship, and I’m going to run every
race. We’re going to start that way, see how it goes.”

Edwards did answer the question about whether a
driver not eligible for a series’ drivers’ championship could contribute
to an owners’ title.

“We still have the owners’ championship to go
for, we still have all those wins to race for, and that’s fun,” Edwards
said. “That’s what makes the Nationwide Series fun. I would really love
to be able to have another championship battle with Brad, especially
him, because of how well he ran last year. It would be great to go out
and try to race him again for it.

“My plan is to run every race. If we get eight
or 10 races in and it’s not looking good, then I don’t know what we’d
do. Whatever looks best for our Cup program.”

It’s just good to be back behind the wheel, and I’ve got a great crew and a great team with a new look.


Dragging the line

Last season Kurt Busch
built a drag race car and went to the Gatornationals in Gainesville,
Fla., to debut it. Thursday, he was again resplendent in the colors of
his new sponsor, Shell Pennzoil, shortly after leaving his No. 22 Dodge.
After joking about it, he got serious about his drag program.

“It’s just good to be back behind the wheel, and
I’ve got a great crew and a great team with a new look — we actually
added a new engineer position to our [team], so we’re a stronger team
with more people coming to the track each week,” Busch said. “It’s just
exciting to have a new look on the car and to have the new number, that
will take a little while for all of our fans and everybody to get
adjusted to — and then when everybody stops calling me Kevin [Harvick,
who drove for that sponsor for the past several years] we’ll be settled

“For me doing some NHRA drag racing is probably
my most unique challenge that’s been the most fun for me, and I have a
press announcement next week with some of my ambitions for NHRA this

Downtime just fine

Denny Hamlin
made a startling run at the Sprint Cup championship last fall, only to
become the first driver who led the points at the start of the Homestead
finale to lose the title by the checkered flag. Therefore, it wasn’t
surprising he had neither been in a car, nor thought much about driving
one, since then.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a car since
Homestead, and obviously it feels pretty good,” Hamlin said. “It’s just
everyone this is an exciting time for everyone from the media to the
drivers to the teams — so we’re looking forward to it, for a clean
slate and obviously getting some personal goals done this year.”

The championship would be the obvious one, but Hamlin said there was time for that.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t even thought
about racing in the last month — I really haven’t, not one bit
[because] you’ve just got to move past it,” Hamlin said. “There’s
nothing we can do about it. Racing is about strategy — racing is about
having the best team, best car, best driver and putting it all together.

“So for me, starting this year, obviously
there’s things that I’ve decided that I want to work on in the off
season to try to get better at the race track, and now is the time to
try to work on those things.”

Anticipation builds throughout first day of testing
Racing on new pavement demands trust, respect

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