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Jeff Gordon: Last 3 races weren’t the same without Tony Stewart

Aug 29, 2014, 7:06 PM EDT

HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have a lot in common.

They’re both 43 (2 ½ months apart), are from Indiana (Gordon is a California transplant), practically grew up together – particularly on the dirt tracks of the Midwest – and since then have been battling each other on Sprint Cup tracks for the last 16 seasons.

Gordon and all other Sprint Cup drivers experienced what it was like to race without Stewart last season, when he missed the last 15 races due to a broken leg suffered in a sprint car wreck.

But the last three races at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – all which Stewart missed in the aftermath of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy – there was a different atmosphere without Stewart. It’s as if it just wasn’t quite NASCAR without Stewart in the No. 14.

Now that Stewart is back for this weekend’s action at Atlanta Motor Speedway, MotorSportsTalk asked Gordon what the last three races were like without Stewart – who oftentimes is the life of the party at a racetrack – around on-track or in the garage.

“He’s such a big part of this series,” Gordon told MST. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best race car drivers I’ve ever raced against. I respect him so much, and as well as the giving part and soul that the guy has.”

To illustrate Stewart’s largesse and spirit, Gordon then reflected back to a charity go-kart event in Knoxville, Iowa, that he, Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took part in, just three days before the tragedy in upstate New York.

MORE: Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

“Before this whole incident happened, I was racing go-karts against him in Knoxville, raising a lot of money for charity,” Gordon told MST. “He said to me, ‘Let’s do it next year. Let’s do it again. This is so awesome, we’ve got to do this next year.’

“I told him, ‘I’m in. I’ll do this for the next five years, if you want to do it.’ He goes, ‘I’m in, let’s do it.’ He’s that kind of person. But he’s also a fierce competitor. So on the track, you know that if Tony Stewart’s out there, you’re going to have to deal with him to win that race or get that position. He’s just an awesome race car driver.”

Gordon was like dozens of others who sent along well-wishes to Stewart during his self-imposed exile.

“I sent him a text as soon as I found out he was coming this week, that I’m very supportive of having him back and to know, based on watching the press conference, how emotional this has been for him,” Gordon said.

“I probably haven’t spent as much time with him as a lot of other drivers have away from the racetrack, getting to know that sarcastic side to him or that joking side to him,” Gordon said. “But the time I have spent with him, the guy’s just a good, fun-loving guy to hang out with.

“I think we’re all happy to have him back. I just hate the fact of what the circumstances were as to why he wasn’t here.”

Heading into Friday night’s qualifying session, Stewart came in having recorded the 10th-fastest speed in the practice session a few hours earlier.

“I do think the best thing for him is to be in that race car,” Gordon said of Stewart. “And don’t be surprised if he sits on the pole tonight. He was fast in his qualifying runs. So he might make quite a return.”

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