Stewart enjoying new role, puts Le Mans on 'bucket list'

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Tony Stewart can show up late, leave early or not even attend NASCAR practices these days.

It's one of the perks of his pseudo retirement.

Stewart is at Daytona International Speedway solely as a team owner for the first time in his career. And he's enjoying it.

''I'll be honest, it's been kind of nice,'' Stewart said Saturday. ''Really, the only drama I've had so far is Roger (Penske) picking at me on the color of shirt I wear. ... If all I've got to worry about is my shirt color, I've got it made right now.''

Stewart stepped away from full-time racing at the end of last season, calling it quits after 18 years, 49 wins, three Cup Series championships and more than $125 million in prize money.

He's now co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields cars for Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer. But he also plans to race 70 sprint car events at dirt tracks across the country.

It sounded like he planned to cut back earlier this month after a disappointing showing in the season opener of the All Star Circuit of Champions, a series Stewart owns. But he said that was never the case.

''No, I'm still gonna run just as many,'' Stewart said. ''I cut back last week, but we've been racing this week and we're gonna stick to our schedule. So we're full steam ahead.''

Getting back on a paved track might not be out of the question, either.

Stewart, also the 1997 Indy Racing League champion, made it clear Saturday that he would love to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's the oldest sports car race still being run and the most prestigious.

Ford made a triumphant return to Le Mans last year with its famed Ford GT car and won its class. And Stewart, who helped SHR make the manufacturer move from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, would welcome a spot on Chip Ganassi Racing's team that spearheads Ford's sports car program. Stewart also noted that Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer, jokingly looked away when Le Mans was mentioned.

''Le Mans is something that's a bucket list item for me,'' Stewart said. ''The thing about running the GT cars, that's probably the toughest division to run both Daytona and Le Mans, and I've talked to a couple guys that do that. There's so much more than just trying to drive a fast lap.''

He said racing cars in his particular class while also trying to stay out of the way of faster cars is the biggest challenge.

''The guys that do that all the time are really, really good at it,'' Stewart said. ''I like challenges, but like I said, I like being able to come into practice late and leave early, and I'm kind of enjoying this side for now. I think right now the biggest thing is just making sure that we're focused on what we're doing here, and I still have other races that I'm running.''

And four Monster Cup cars that take up much of his time.

All four had solid finishes in the 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday. Harvick finished third in the first race, and Bowyer (second), Busch (third) and Patrick (seventh) were in the top 10 in the second one.

For Bowyer, who replaced Stewart in the No. 14, the race showed he's capable of winning again after a miserable 2016 season at HScott Motorsports.

''It was real encouraging,'' Stewart said. ''The transition with Clint, I think once Homestead was over, you could see an immediate change in his confidence. He's been excited all winter. You guys know Clint. It's like dropping a super ball off the top of a building and watching it bounce around nonstop.

''The only thing we're trying to figure out is what size shock collar we need to get to him to keep his attention and keep him focused. His enthusiasm has been really fun to watch at the shop and around all the guys.''

Bowyer failed to get a top-five finish in 2016 for the first time in his 11-year career and wound up a career-low 27th in points.

''I've never seen him this excited,'' Stewart said. ''Obviously, last year wasn't the year that he wanted by any means, and this is a fresh start for him, so I know he's excited.''

Stewart seems at peace out of the car, too. He's doing what he loves - and doesn't even have to practice.

''If I get any more relaxed, I'll be in a coma,'' he said.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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