Smoke, sidelined but still smoking (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Tony Stewart may be sidelined for a while, recovering from that nasty injury to his right leg, but he's certainly not missing in action.
Over the past two weeks Stewart & Company have been wheeling and dealing heavy-duty behind the scenes:
-- Mark Martin getting the nod to fill in for Stewart most of the rest of the season;
-- Kurt Busch now apparently all but signed-sealed-delivered as a fourth Sprint Cup driver for Stewart-Haas;
-- Rodney Childers, top crew chief at Michael Waltrip's the past four years, now moving over to Stewart-Haas, apparently to take the job as crew chief for incoming Kevin Harvick.
Still no word about where Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman may land. The top major openings at the moment appear to be the Barney Visser ride that Busch currently has, the Chip Ganassi ride that Juan Pablo Montoya has, and the Richard Childress ride that Harvick has.
Roger Penske says he has no plans to expand to a three-car team in 2014.
Rodney Childers: Brian Vickers' winning crew chief at Loudon, N.H. Now heading to Tony Stewart's Chevy team. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tires are back in the news:
-- Teams had tire trouble here in the spring, apparently in part because of camber issues. They will be running the same tires again this weekend.
-- What to make of those tire complaints by Dale Earnhardt Jr. post-race Sunday?
"We have had a lot of problems with this particular tire, and it's getting frustrating," Earnhardt said after crashing out at Michigan. "I think this is the same tire we struggled with the last race."
Earnhardt and Ricky Stenhouse were the only two drivers blowing tires because of excessive heat.
One issue could be that these new 2013s are so sealed up, for aerodynamics, that it's hard for heat to escape.
However one team at Michigan worried that a delamination could have been an issue last weekend.
The sudden surge in speeds everywhere this season with these new model stockers has created a delimma for NASCAR, which continues to search for some way to slow the cars down. Using the electronic fuel injection system, by changing the parameters and/or injectors, is one possibility. Here NASCAR has changed rear end gearing, though it's not clear how much that might really slow these cars down.
( NASCAR, meanwhile, is apparently shaking up its competition/inspection department, asking for 40 of the 120-some inspectors to consider retiring. The sanctioning body plans to consolidate inspection operations for its Cup, Nationwide and Truck series.)
-- Goodyear's new Atlanta tire, just unveiled during a 13-team test August 6th, is a really big deal, and it could revolutionize tire design in this sport.
The goal is to toughen up the inside shoulder of the right-side tires, to make that part of the tire more heat-resistant, while still giving drivers good grip in the broad corners.
For the past few years there have been questions why Goodyear can't 'layer' its racing tires with different compounds, softer on the outside, becoming increasingly harder as the tire wears over a 100-mile run. It is possible, but engineers have worried about adhesion.
For the September 1st Atlanta 500 Goodyear is bringing out a new right-side tire which does have two different compounds: the outer nine inches will be the standard Atlanta right-side compound, but the inside three inches will be the harder Michigan compound.
Atlanta Motor Speedway was last repaved in 1997, and over the 15 years that asphalt has aged, increasing tire wear. While many NASCAR tracks have been repaved lately, at least 11, there are no plans to repave Atlanta. And drivers aren't interested in new asphalt at Atlanta. In fact drivers typically aren't happy with any repaves, because they prefer abrasive surface to race on.
The speeds at Atlanta are still sizzling, over 200 mph into the wide corners. And speeds this season with these new 2013s are up four mph at most high-speed tracks.
Goodyear says the new Atlanta tire has no seams, that the two compounds are merged smoothly, that no problems are anticipated.
Kasey Kahne, on the dozen-plus drivers testing, put down some 30-lap runs without incident. A full fuel run should be about 50 laps,
Goodyear boss Stu Grant says "Atlanta is one of our biggest challenges. The abrasive surface causes extremely high wear, while the length (1-1/2-miles around) and layout (long corners) promote very high speeds."
The men testing: Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Kahne, Casey Mears, Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard, David Ragan, JJ Yeley, Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, David Reutimann and Carl Edwards.
Goodyear's guys have been working overtime this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Tony Stewart situation has become quite strange the past few weeks, since Stewart's announcement at Loudon, N.H., that there was no room for Newman next season.
"Obviously something has changed," Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's competition director, says, pointing toward business partner Gene Haas.
Others here also point toward Haas, who sold half of his team to Stewart in 2009 to entice the now three-time champion back to the Chevrolet fold. Haas, who hasn't weighed in himself on all this, apparently was so shaken by Stewart's August 5th crash that he jumped back into action.
Stewart's injuries themselves are the subject of speculation, that repairing and rehabing the damaged muscles and skin tissue may be more of a challenge than just the leg bone injury itself. There has been not much specific information about the extent of Stewart's injuries, except that the driveshaft is the piece that caused the most damage.
Sponsorship, of course, is part of this debate, as Zipadelli points out. Martin in fact just finished a commercial shoot as Stewart's replacement. Bass Pro Shops and Mobil 1 are Stewart's sponsors here.
However it is the Kurt Busch angle -- so suddenly -- that is most curious.
"We had talked about Kurt last year -- putting him in the No. 39 (Newman's ride); things just didn't work out," Zipadelli says.
"It's really nothing that Ryan did wrong. I mean he's done a great job; he's a good guy, heck of a driver...."
And yet now Kurt Busch gets the ride?
"This just kind of got sprung on us 14 days ago, or less," Zipadelli says. "Gene just showed some interest (in Busch)....and having the ability to put something together...
"Without getting into a ton more details, that is really all it is. It's something we are working on.
"I don't know that it will all come together. It's going to take an awful lot. It is kind of late.
"We didn't think we would have all the pieces to get put together at Loudon, and felt like it was the best thing for Ryan to give him a fair shot at securing something for himself.
"As far as Kurt's deal, that is moving forward. We spent some time this week talking about buildings and expanding. As far as that part of it goes, we are pretty much committed."
Busch had just posted Friday afternoon's fastest lap in Visser's Chevy when he flattened the right-side. Busch's crew chief, Todd Berrier, is not going to a backup however.
With Busch apparently going to Stewart's team, that leaves Childress suddenly working the garage hard to find a driver to replace Harvick. Newman may be the best bet for Childress, who needs a solid contending driver to fill that slot.
Kurt Busch: Tony Stewart's new teammate? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Childers is going to take over Kevin Harvick's new team at Stewart's? Childers confirms he's leaving Michael Waltrip.
"We love Rodney; he has been a friend of mine for a while," Zipadelli says.
"We have talked to many people. He is on our radar, but we have no commitments, nothing signed."
Such expansion? Just weeks after a no-go?
"Our owners are aggressive," Zipadelli says. "It's kind of exciting; it's fun -- in a time where everybody is kind of going the other way, we've got owners that are committed to stepping up.
"With four good drivers next year I think that it gives us that opportunity."
Greg Zipadelli: suddenly Stewart's team is aggressively expanding. What changed so suddenly? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For now Mark Martin has Stewart's ride, which Zipadelli calls "a home run.
"Obviously he has big shoes to fill; not many guys in the garage that could do that.
"We all agreed if there was any way to get Mark Martin, he was the guy that would do us the best job."
And Stewart himself?
He hasn't made himself available to the media, for some reason.
But Zipadelli has been holding weekly sessions.
Stewart, Zipadelli says, "is struggling with the fact he is not in the car and he's in this situation.
"I hope that, and think that he will come back to Daytona (next February) with something to prove to the world.
"I think that is part of what he will learn a little bit -- about how important it is to him. Sometimes we take things for granted....
"I think he is bound and determined to change the sprint cars and make them safer. It probably should have happened years ago.
"Hopefully he will come back here with a little different attitude -- and understanding how important and how we all rely on him."
So will Stewart, when he comes back to the tour, still be running all these sideline events?
"I think it's too early to get into that stuff," Zipadelli says. "He needs to go through his process right now. We need to go through ours. And we need to spend time talking honestly.
"I don't think you can take Tony Stewart and tell him he can't drive other cars. That is what makes him that is who he is.
"Can we get him to cut his schedule back? Can we get him to look at things? Can we help him with this movement of making those cars safer?
"I think those will be the things that come in the next couple of months."
Mark Martin: filling in for the injured Stewart in 13 of the tour's final 14 events (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)