Stewart Fights For His Rights

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Tony Stewart was at it again Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, arguing with NASCAR one final time before putting on a Hutchens device for the first practice session.

Stewart was the final Winston Cup driver to abstain from wearing a head-and-neck restraint system, but after NASCAR announced Wednesday those devices would be mandatory, Stewart had to give in.

But he didn’t give in without a fight.

Stewart was waiting for his car to be prepared for the first practice when crew chief Greg Zipadelli informed him he had to wear the Hutchens – Stewart’s choice over the HANS device.

Stewart immediately took off for the NASCAR trailer, presumably to express his displeasure over having to wear a restraint device. After five minutes, Stewart headed back to his team’s transport, where he briefly took off his driver’s uniform.

Soon, however, Stewart was back in the garage, wearing a Hutchens. He buckled in and sped out of the garage, briefly spinning his wheels in a puddle of water as he left.

“I don’t yet see it as a concern,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said of Stewart’s recalcitrance. “It’s a challenge, certainly. I won’t put that aside. Tony has an incredible amount of talent, and he’s a great guy. He really is… When it comes to driving a race car, he is emotionally driven as anybody we’ve got right now. It’s worth the challenge to keep him in this garage area.

“In the meantime, we haven’t reached a stone wall yet that keeps that from not being worth it.”

Asked if dealing with Stewart is like dealing with his children, Helton said, “No, there are things you can do to your children.”

Stewart’s main beef with the restraint systems is discomfort. But Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson said all the other drivers adapted to either the HANS or Hutchens.

“In Daytona in February, we had conversations with drivers, and the majority of them felt they weren’t comfortable with those kind of devices,” Nelson said. “As we worked through the season, the majority of them became the minority… Some of the guys early on who were having a tough time, they are now making comments like, ‘I wouldn’t drive without it.’

“Unfortunately, we were down to one guy left who has the issue of discomfort. We’ve seen all the other guys with the same mindset change over time.”

And NASCAR isn’t going to make an exception.

“That’s what rules are about,” Nelson said. “For a series to be strong, it has to have solid rules, and those rules have to be enforced across the board. You can’t take exceptions to a rule. In that situation, that’s all we can do is have everybody follow the rules.”

Stewart tried to find a loophole, telling Nelson there wasn’t a rule stating he had to wear a helmet. Nelson’s retort?

“The rulebook states that helmets are recommended,” Nelson said. “There’s not a way that a race driver can wear a head-and-neck restraint system without hooking it to his helmet. You can figure that one out.”

Petty Enterprises makes some moves
The redesign of Petty Enterprises continues with the addition of Steven Lane as crew chief for Kyle Petty and Richard Buck as technical director.

Lane comes from Penske Racing, where he was car chief for the No. 12 Ford. Chris Hussey, who served as Petty’s crew chief, will be moved into an “overall operational role.”

“We’ve been looking for someone with Steven’s capabilities and attitude,” Petty said. “His expertise and new ideas will help us on the track. His personality and demeanor is going to be great for us off the track, too.”

Lane worked with Penske’s scale-model engineering program before moving to his role as car chief. The Pettys are trying to beef up their program, working with Elan Technologies, an engineering company from Atlanta, and hiring Mike Ege Racing Engines, the former Robert Yates Engine Manufacturing company, to build engines next year.

“The advances they are making at Petty Enterprises were a real draw for me,” Lane said. “Their work with Elan Technologies, and the announcement they will be the exclusive clients of Mike Ege Racing Engines is pretty exciting stuff. There is a lot more to come, too.

“I came into this business to work on cars, but mostly because I’m pretty competitive. I want to win. With the work they are doing at Petty Enterprises and the plans they have for the future, I believe that day is coming pretty soon.”

Buck was the former team manager at Andy Petree Racing, joining that team after 17 years in Indy cars.

“Richard brings a wealth of experience from both stock cars and Indy cars, and provides a unique perspective,” Petty said. “This is a guy whose cars have won and sat on poles in big races, including the Indianapolis 500.”

Junior back with dominant car
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so dominant in the previous restrictor-plate race that cries of a fix surfaced after he won the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July. Now he’s back at a plate race, one of two drivers – Mike Wallace is the other – to have finished in the Top 10 in all three previous restrictor-plate races in 2001.

He led 116 of the 160 laps at Daytona in July.

“We’ve been great at Talladega and Daytona,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) restrictor-plate program is really at the top of the pack. If you wanna win a restrictor-plate race, you gotta deal with us. Our engine guys work year-round on it, and our aero package is great, too. We’re taking the car that we won Daytona with in July, so I know I’m pumped up and the team is pumped up to roll into victory lane with that Budweiser car again. This time, it’ll be painted red like it usually is. I’ve got one side of the “baseball” paint scheme body from Daytona mounted in my new garage now. I’m gonna enjoy that one forever.”

Some Dodges won’t use kickout
Much has been made of the 2-inch “kickout” NASCAR allowed Dodge teams to add to the nose of its Intrepids in August. But Bill Elliott, driver of Evernham Motorsports’ No. 9 Dodge, said some teams wouldn’t even use it at Talladega.

“I know a lot of teams probably won’t use it,” Elliott said. “We aren’t because you don’t need downforce at Talladega. You need a low drag car, a car that’s good aero wise. The 2 inches doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference aero wise here because you’re not at a track where you can run as fast as you want through the corners. Unless it lowers the total drag on the car, a little bit of downforce doesn’t seem to matter on the nose.

“Everything’s a compromise. At Daytona and Talladega it’s a compromise of getting the right balance of the car with the least amount of drag. Everywhere else, you can put as much downforce as you can on the car and you don’t worry about the drag because you’re having to back off when you’re going into the corners.”

Reorganization in competition department
NASCAR announced a reorganization of its competition department for next season. Nelson was named Managing Director of Competition, overseeing NASCAR’s three major series, Winston Cup, Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck Series.

Nelson will be replaced by John Darby, who holds the same position in the Busch Series.

“It’s a tough job,” Helton said. “And it gets tougher every year. John’s a nice mix right now. He’s got a great personality and people skills, but he’s also got that technical background that’s very critical in this garage areas.”

Darby’s replacement will be Brian DeHart, a Winston Cup inspector.

In other moves, Director of Operations Kevin Triplett has been named Managing Director of Business Operations, overseeing schedules, sanctions, credentials, timing and scoring and other business aspects of the three top divisions. And Joe Garone, a former crew chief, will head NASCAR’s research and development center in Conover, N.C.

Wayne Auton remains as NCTS Director.

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