Stewart still chasing one prize that's eluded him
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Few drivers have dominated Daytona International Speedway to the degree that Tony Stewart has in recent years. The reigning NASCAR champion has claimed the season-opening event six times at the sport's most famous race track, including the past four years in a row. This weekend, he's in position to match a track record currently owned by Dale Earnhardt. These days, there is nobody better at Daytona.
On a Saturday.
Smoke is indeed prevalent on Saturdays at Daytona, no matter whether it's the cloud emanating from celebratory burnouts or the nickname of the driver spraying champagne in Victory Lane. Stewart owns the February Nationwide tour event at the 2.5-mile facility, claiming all but four of his 10 career wins in that series here, and this Saturday can equal a mark Earnhardt set by winning seven times -- a familiar number when it comes to the Intimidator -- of the old Busch Series races on the famous high banks. It's a fitting track record for a driver who is one of the best there is in the draft, but at the same time a reminder of Stewart's maddening shortcomings in Sunday's main event.
We've had some really good cars here and just missed. ... I feel like the law of averages, we're going to get one eventually.
-- TONY STEWART
Daytona 500 results
* Crash | ^ Engine
That Stewart has never won a Daytona 500 feels so fundamentally incorrect, it forces some people to think twice. "I'm surprised that he hasn't won it, now that I think of it," Jimmie Johnson said. The confusion is understandable, given that Stewart is one of the best restrictor-plate drafters of his era, owns three victories in the summer race at Daytona, and has so dominated the season-opening Nationwide event here that they ought to think about naming the trophy after him. And then there's the not-small matter of the fact that Stewart has won just about everything else in NASCAR, from a trio of championships to a pair of Brickyard victories to wins at every active Sprint Cup track but Darlington, Las Vegas and Kentucky -- and the last one shouldn't even count, given that the track moved onto the schedule only last year.
What's left for Stewart to collect? A Southern 500 at Darlington. A Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. And the biggest race the sport has to offer.
"It's not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column," Stewart conceded. "Realistically, [there are] two tracks we haven't won at and the Daytona 500 we haven't won, and everything else we have pretty much accomplished in this sport that we want to accomplish. It's the biggest race of the year. Everyone wants to win that race. I won't say that it is not a complete career if you don't win it, but there is a lot of priority on this. Darrell Waltrip and Dale [Earnhardt] both had to go a long time before they got it."
Trevor Bayne's stunner a season ago belies the fact that the 500 can prove an elusive quarry, even for the best drivers in the sport. Rusty Wallace never won it. Mark Martin, who is back this year in a part-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing, has never won it. Darrell Waltrip had to wait 17 years before he could finally dance his celebratory jig in Daytona's Victory Lane in 1989. Earnhardt endured 19 frustrating attempts before all those crewmen lined pit road to congratulate the seven-time champion on his breakthrough in 1998. Just as the race itself forces drivers to be patient, to curb their aggression and get to the end, so does the 500 often force its eventual champions to wait, and keep waiting, and then wait some more.
"The longer you go without winning it, the more challenging it becomes, and the harder you think it is," said three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon. "And when you do accomplish it, I think there is that much more meaning behind it, not to mention just the fact that this race means the world to a race car driver."
This week, Stewart makes his 14th attempt at the Daytona 500. That one race is a glaring omission, particularly given that of the nine drivers who have won at least three titles in NASCAR's premier series -- Stewart, Earnhardt, Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson, David Pearson, Lee Petty and Cale Yarborough -- only the current champion has yet to claim the Great American Race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows from watching his father how exasperating the wait can be, and knows from his own experience how much relief an eventual victory can bring.
"I know other drivers aside from my father ... who had to wait a long time to win that race, and some who never won it. That was probably one of the biggest reliefs about the whole deal, that I did get my 500 win and I wasn't going to have to keep coming back and wondering when it was going to happen, if it was going to happen. It's a very frustrating deal," the 2004 winner said.
"Tony has come down here with a lot of great race cars, and is plenty talented enough to know how to win this race, and things haven't worked out for whatever reason in each circumstance. I think that his talent will carry him for so many more years, and he'll be in enough competitive race cars to have plenty more chances to win it, so the odds are really good for him compared to other people in the field. So I wouldn't get too concerned or worried about it if I were him. It will eventually come about."
Earnhardt Jr. would know. Stewart is one of the best drafting partners in the business, and has pushed Earnhardt to three restrictor-plate victories -- his Daytona 500 triumph as well as a pair of wins at Talladega Superspeedway. Although Stewart will have two teammates in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Earnhardt would be happy to draft with his old partner once again.
"Tony is a great, great guy to draft with," Earnhardt said. "Tor whatever reason, he's always thinking the right thing, and he knows where to be to be safe. He knows what to do when he wants to go forward. He just seems to have a good way of calling his race from the seat at Daytona and Talladega. He has made that style work, to where if you want to go chill out in the back. He knows how to get to the front, when to go, how early enough to go to be able to win the race, but not go too soon to get into that last accident. He's really clever and really smart, so he's a great guy to draft with. He sees things happen before they happen."
All of which continues to beg the question -- why hasn't the guy won? He's had his chances, that runner-up performance to Earnhardt Jr. among them. In 2007, Stewart won the Budweiser Shootout and his 150-mile qualifying race, but slid up the track during the 500 and made contact with Kurt Busch, knocking both of them out of the race. The next season, he was passed on the final lap by winner and future teammate Ryan Newman. To date his most notable Daytona 500 moment is probably an infamous one, a 2001 crash where his vehicle went airborne, flipped, and landed on the roof of former teammate Bobby Labonte.
"I don't think we feel jinxed," Stewart said. "We've had some really good cars here and just missed. ... We've had some really good opportunities. We've been leading late in these races. I feel like the law of averages, we're going to get one eventually. But there have been a lot of them that have slipped away and slipped through our fingers. We've had good luck here, we just haven't had that good luck during the 500 yet. So we'll just keep digging."
Maybe this year, when his 14th attempt matches the No. 14 on the side of his race car, will be the year. He certainly seemed capable Saturday night, when he and Kyle Busch dueled at the finish of the Budweiser Shootout. In that instance, Busch used a nifty slingshot move and edged Stewart by .013 seconds (watch), the closest margin of victory in the history of the event. Stewart already is thinking about what he might do differently in the same situation Sunday, when the biggest stock-car racing prize still to elude him will be on the line.
"I've got a couple of ideas in my mind," he said, "but I don't want to share them with everybody, to be honest. I might need them for Sunday."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.