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Caraviello: Stewart looks poised to grab elusive 500 victory

February 23, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Stewart might just have the car to end Daytona 500 odyssey in 14th start

In the immediate aftermath there was the usual round of congratulations, but very soon afterward attention immediately turned to Sunday. And the orders on the radio were simple and definitive: Nobody touch what might be the best car in the Daytona 500.

"Keep it clean, please," Tony Stewart requested.

Smoke signal


Tony Stewart won the first of two Duel races, taking the checkered under caution after Danica Patrick slammed the wall on the final lap.

"Don't put anything on our race car," spotter Bob Jeffrey echoed. "That's going to be the Daytona 500 winner."

It certainly seemed a possibility Thursday, when Stewart saved enough fuel to stay out during the final round of pit stops and win the first of the twin 150-mile qualifying events that set the field for NASCAR's biggest race. But this was no fuel mileage victory -- although Stewart took the checkered flag under caution when Danica Patrick was knocked out of line and hammered the backstretch wall in a hard crash, his No. 14 was stout enough to hold off late charges by Daytona 500 pole winner Carl Edwards and restrictor-plate ace Dale Earnhardt Jr. And it might just be the vehicle that helps Stewart end his career drought in the Great American Race.

Speedweeks often take on a theme, with one team or one driver asserting themselves as the favorites through their exploits in the events that lead up to the Daytona 500. While that's no guarantee of success in the main event on the often-capricious high banks of the 2.5-mile track -- Earnhardt Jr. won the Budweiser Shootout, a qualifying race and the Nationwide event here in 2003 before a bad alternator derailed his hopes in the 500 -- it certainly helps identify the primary contenders, a description that more than fits Stewart. Roush Fenway cars may have swept front-row qualifying, but no vehicle has looked better in the draft this week than the No. 14 car, which lost a narrow slingshot finish to Kyle Busch in Saturday's Shootout before prevailing on Thursday.

No question the Roush Fenway cars have made a statement the past five days, with Edwards and Greg Biffle claiming the top spots in front-row qualifying, and Matt Kenseth winning the final 150-mile event on Thursday. But mastering the draft is what matters here, and few of his era do that better than Stewart, even if he doesn't have a Daytona 500 victory to show for it. Thursday marked Stewart's 17th career race win at Daytona, a tally that includes a trio of summertime Sprint Cup triumphs and six Nationwide Series events. It feels like the three-time champion is continuing the roll he enjoyed at the end of last season in Homestead, just a little further up the Florida coast.

"It's good momentum for the crew, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year," Stewart said. "It gives you confidence going into Sunday. We only raced against half the field in this qualifier. ... It's a long race on Sunday, and a lot can happen. Even though we had success [Thursday], [there's] no guarantee that can happen Sunday. I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That's a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully that will work for us on Sunday, too."

It was the Daytona qualifying events, and the practices that surrounded them, where Bayne showed the speed and drafting acumen that identified him as a sought-after partner and potential contender last season, efforts that he backed up with his unexpected victory in the Daytona 500. Stewart would be far from a surprise, particularly given how many near-misses he's had here in the past, and how many times he's pushed other drivers to victory. Then again, this is Daytona, and the draft can be fickle, and strange things -- flat tire on the final lap, anyone? -- happen here. Assuming too much based on past results is only a recipe for disappointment.

"It's good momentum for the crew, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year. It gives you confidence going into Sunday. "

--TONY STEWART

No one understands that better than Stewart, who spent a long, frustrating time chasing his first victory at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and this week is making his 14th attempt to claim one of the few major NASCAR titles that's still eluded him.

"There's just something magical about Daytona," Stewart said. "Just like IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 are the same way. When it's the most important race of your 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 year. Especially at a place where the draft is so important, you don't get away from each other. It really brings everybody into the fold, and everybody has a shot at winning this race. It just leads for no mistakes. You have to get every little ounce of performance that you can get out of these cars. So, you know, it puts a lot of pressure into what it takes to win this race."

And yet, it doesn't take a leap of logic to label Stewart as a favorite. Yes, Edwards is on the pole, but no driver has won the Daytona 500 from the pole since Dale Jarrett did it in 2000. Busch may have slipped around Stewart at the finish to claim the Shootout, but he finished seventh in the second qualifying race in a car he at one point called "undrivable." Meanwhile, the vehicle that's shown the most consistency the course of these Speedweeks bears a bright white No. 14 on the roof, and for a brief while Thursday sat in Victory Lane.

Speaking of that car -- hands off. With three practice sessions remaining until the main event, the goal now is to keep Stewart's red and black Chevrolet in the same condition until Sunday. Crew chief Steve Addington said the plan is to put the race engine in it, freshen up a few parts, run a few laps in practice to make sure there are no leaks or vibrations, and then put the thing on jack stands until it's time to roll it out in the grid for the Daytona 500. This car -- lucky No. 14, maybe? -- might be just the vehicle to end Stewart's Daytona 500 quest in his 14th start.

"Our focus is on Sunday," said Addington, who became Stewart's crew chief this season. "We talked about it when he got in the car -- just fill it out, we'll do what we need to do. But we needed to have this piece for Sunday to have a chance to win the race on Sunday. That's our game plan, to take care of this thing 'til Sunday."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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