DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For the first time in seven years Tony Stewart did not win Saturday’s Drive4COPD Nationwide Series race at the Daytona International Speedway.
That may be exactly what Stewart needed.
While he’s had no trouble winning races and championships everywhere else, today’s Daytona 500 remains an enigma. He’s been fast and the favorite so many times, but none of that has translated to a win he admits is at the top of his bucket list.
Maybe by not winning the preliminary race, it will change his routine of not winning the main event.
“There’s just something magical about Daytona, just like IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500, the same thing,” he said while preparing for his 14th Daytona 500. “When it’s the most-important race of the season, especially the first one, all the drivers and all the teams and all the crews put more pressure on themselves for that one race than they do anywhere else the rest of the season.”
Stewart finished second last week in the Bud Shootout exhibition race and he won a 150-mile qualifying race for the 500 on Thursday. He was involved in a final-lap, 10-car crash in Saturday’s Nationwide race, snapping a winning streak that started in 2005.
Counting Thursday’s win, Stewart now has 17 career trips to Victory Lane. He’d probably trade all of them for one Daytona 500 win.
Darrell Waltrip used to say the Daytona 500 wouldn’t define his career. Dale Earnhardt used to say the same thing. Then they both won – Waltrip in his 17th attempt; Earnhardt in his 19th – and everything changed. Waltrip crying in Victory Lane and dancing still is one of his most-lasting memories, just like when Earnhardt emotionally embraced the Harley Earl Trophy.
Stewart will try to add his name to racing history when he rolls off the line from third on the grid.
Stewart still holds a deep appreciation for the Indianapolis 500 because he lives an hour away in Columbus, Ind. But now that he’s committed solely to NASCAR, the Daytona 500 is all that matters.
He’s done just about everything else.
He won the championship last year in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards. It was the third time he’s done that in NASCAR, and it made him the only driver to win championships in both NASCAR and IndyCars.
Stewart remains one of the most-unique drivers the sport has ever known. He has a fish tank in his living room with largemouth bass. He used to have a pet monkey, racing greyhounds and radio controlled cars.
But he’s driven by racing. And nothing drives him more than winning the Daytona 500.
“I don’t think that we’re jinxed,” he said. “We’ve had some really good cars and we’ve just missed. We’ve been leading late in these races, and so I feel like with the law of averages, we’re going to get one eventually.
“There have been a lot of them that have slipped away and slipped through our fingers. But we’ve had good luck here. We just haven’t had that good luck during the 500 yet. So we’ll just keep digging.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his father’s frustration at Daytona for most of his young life. That’s why he was happy when he won his own Daytona 500 in just his fifth try.
“I know other drivers aside from my father have had to wait a long time to win that race and some who have never won it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That was probably one of the biggest reliefs about the whole deal was that I did get my Daytona 500 win. 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 odds are really good for him compared to other people in the field. I wouldn’t get too concerned or worried about it if I were him. It will eventually come about.”
If the win doesn’t come today, Stewart will come back next year with the same determination.
“I wouldn’t trade any of the three championships to win Daytona,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column. 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, but there is a lot of priority on this.”