Will 15th chance finally be charm for three-time Cup champion?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Fourteen times Tony Stewart has attempted to etch his name on the Harley J. Earl trophy, symbolic of the Daytona 500 champion. Fourteen times he has failed to win what’s referred to as the Great American Race.
“I’m not going to say that my career is a disappointment and I’ve not been successful if we don’t accomplish it,” Stewart said. “But yeah, it’s definitely something that’s high on the priority list.”
A three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 47 Cup races, Stewart easily clicks off the close calls and near misses when asked about the series’ most prestigious race.
There was the wild crash in 2001, his car becoming airborne, then briefly carried down the backstretch on top of the car of Sterling Marlin before going into a series of vicious flips and rolls when it once again found the asphalt.
In 2004, he led nearly one half the race only to trail Dale Earnhardt Jr. across the finish line after the two had separated themselves from the pack.
A year later, he was just as dominant, running out front with just six laps remaining. But a caution for debris set up a slam-bang, green-white-checkered finish that saw he and Jimmie Johnson trade sheet metal while the leaders drove away.
In 2007, Stewart had one of his most promising entries, and once again the lead, only to wind up in the garage after contact with Kurt Busch sent his car hard into the outside wall on lap 153.
“Probably the biggest one was the year (’07) that I got a pit road speeding penalty, had to go to the back, we fought our way back up through the field, and got back to the lead,” he said.
Mired in traffic, he had crew chief Greg Zipadelli free up the car, a move that helped get Stewart to the front, but proved problematic once he was back on top.
“I got loose in front of Kurt Busch and, it wasn’t his fault; sliding the car broke my momentum enough and where the ... angle was, he hit us and it took both of us out,” Stewart said. “It was our fault not his.”
“I feel like between Kurt and I we had the dominant cars that day,” Stewart said. “We’d worked our way from the very back of the field and got back to the lead. That was probably our best shot to win it.”
Defining A Career
Since Daytona International Speedway began hosting the Daytona 500 in 1959, 521 drivers have competed in the event. Thirty-six drivers have won the race at least once while nine have two or more victories.
To date, only two drivers, Trevor Bayne and Mario Andretti, have won the Daytona 500 but failed to win another Sprint Cup series race.
Richard Petty, NASCAR’s King, has won the race a record seven times.
“It was my career,” Petty said with a chuckle.
Petty’s father, Lee, won the inaugural Daytona 500, speeding across the finish line alongside Johnny Beauchamp and the lapped car of Joe Weatherly. It took officials three days to sort out the finish and declare Petty the victor.
While competitors were in awe of the sprawling 2.5-mile superspeedway, it would be several years before the race took on the significance and mystique it continues to hold today on race fans and teams alike.
“When my dad won it the first time in ’59, Darlington was the biggest race,” Petty said. “For two, three, or four years or more after that, Darlington still was the biggest race because (the Southern 500) had been going on since 1950. So they got a head start on Daytona. But over a period of time, Daytona became the race, the Super Bowl, World Series, Kentucky Derby, whatever. It was our biggest deal.”
Petty won his first Daytona 500 title in 1964. It came in his fifth attempt.
“As my career started, I was fortunate enough to win Daytona and that put me out all over the country, all over the world, just because it was the Daytona 500,” Petty said. “It really jump-started everything I did.”
While Petty was one of the few able to enjoy success at Daytona early in a career, for others the accomplishment seemed as if it would never occur.
Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and winner of 84 races, didn’t roll up into Victory Lane to celebrate a Daytona 500 win until his 17th attempt.
Dale Earnhardt, like Petty a seven-time series champion, seemed destined to win nearly everything else at Daytona except for the 500. Then in 1998, the stars finally aligned and Earnhardt was the first to the checkered flag. It was his 20th attempt.
Buddy Baker, too, tried unsuccessfully for years before he finally won in 1980.
“Oh my,” the still-physically fit Baker said. “Winning four times at Talladega and still working on that Daytona 500 for 18 years? Leading it with 25 miles to go on 11 different occasions? When I won it, it was like, ‘OK, as far as superspeedways, I’ve got it covered.’ It was the biggest race of my life.”
Anywhere and everywhere he goes today, Baker said, he can mention wining at Charlotte, Talladega, Atlanta and Darlington, but nothing garners attention like Daytona.
“You say the Daytona 500, and they go, ‘Oh my! Wow! You won that one?’” Baker said.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner, won two of the series’ biggest races in 2010 -- the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
Daytona, he said, continues to stand out.
“It’s definitely the most amazing race you can win,” McMurray said. “There’s not any other race that compares to the Daytona 500 because we’re here for so many days and there’s so much buildup to it.
“As a little kid, this is the race that everybody watches. Even if you are a casual NASCAR fan, you watch the Daytona 500. I’ve watched this since I was a little kid. It’s the most amazing racing moment you can have.”
Harder To Win?
Steve Addington, Stewart’s crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing, doesn’t know if the Daytona 500 is any more difficult to win than any of the other races on the schedule. But he’s confident that it is one race his driver is intent on eventually winning.
“I think he’s wanted it really bad,” Addington said. “We thought we were in pretty good shape last year, thought we had a really good car, a fast car. It was just circumstances.
“I think Tony just needs to be relaxed, go out there and the race will come to him.”
Greg Zipadelli spent 10 years as crew chief for Stewart when the two were paired together at Joe Gibbs Racing, guiding Stewart to two of his three Cup titles.
“I think the worst thing you can do,” Zipadelli said, “is put extra pressure on yourself to try and make something happen. Because that’s when it usually doesn’t.”
Zipadelli, now competition director at Stewart-Haas, said he doesn’t second-guess what could have been done differently to put or keep his driver in position to win.
“We did all we could do at that time,” he said. “We put an awful lot of effort into our speedway cars to race -- they always did race well. We led a lot of laps and had some crazy wrecks, (last-minute) passes, just crazy things. That’s just what it is.
“Do I want to win a Daytona 500? Yes, it’s one of the most important races out there. I guess we were blessed; we got to win two (Brickyard) races. A lot of people haven’t done that.”
Perhaps the Daytona 500 is more difficult to win, Stewart said, given that drivers have only one chance a year to capture the biggest race of the season. Other factors play into the difficulty as well, he said. Restrictor plates limit breakaway speed on the 2.5-mile track, and tend to keep the cars bunched as they circle the track at speeds of 200 mph or more. By making the right move at the right time, nearly every driver in the field has a shot at victory.
“There are 38 opportunities to win a race during the year,” Stewart said. “You’ve got only one chance a year to win the Daytona 500. You don’t get a chance to go do it again the next week, to try again.
“But Daytona, more so now than ever, everybody’s got a shot. It doesn’t matter whether you start first or 43rd; the whole field has got a shot to win there. There are always one or two cars that seem to stand out but even at that, if the scenarios line up right, a guy that qualified 43rd, his car can win the race if the right guy is pushing him.
“So it makes it harder than ever from that standpoint. You go back a few years and two or three cars stood out and seemed to lead the whole race. It’s hard to do that now.”
The Calm Before The Storm
Stewart has one top-five and six top-10s in the Daytona 500. He will start 13th on Sunday.
His car has been fast in practice, clocking in either near or at the top of the scoreboard for the past several days.
That consistency has made him one of a handful of favorites heading into the 55th running of the event.
But what if it doesn’t happen this year? Or the next? Will Stewart’s legacy be any less noteworthy without the celebration of a Daytona 500 victory?
“Just like Earnhardt, give him time,” said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner. “The greats of motorsports … find a way to win the big races. He’s so good on the restrictor plate (tracks).”
“He’s a three-time NASCAR champion so he can substitute that for his introduction,” Michael Waltrip, twice a winner of the race, said. “… With Tony, it would just be another jewel in his crown. He’s got so many, it’s just another one he needs in there. I know he’s still got a few chances at it.”
Stewart doesn’t dwell on the what-ifs. He races, and he wins. Often. Even at Daytona, where his resume includes four victories in the July Cup race, three in the February qualifying races, and six (through 2012) in the Nationwide Series. His 18 career victories at DIS across several series are second only to Earnhardt (34).
Is he one of the greatest with or without a Daytona 500 victory? Stewart isn’t willing to say. He understands, however, the key elements that separate those who achieve greatness from those who don’t.
“Talk to great race car drivers and ask them how many times they’ve had a perfect race car and they can probably name them on one, maybe two hands in a 30-year career,” Stewart said. “That’s what makes great race car drivers different from good race car drivers. That ability to adapt and change how you drive the car or the line you run on the track to accommodate what that car is looking for.”
Sunday, for the 501st time, Stewart will be in the lineup for a Cup race. But it’s not just any race. It’s the Daytona 500.
He knows how his car has performed up to this point, and knows what lies ahead. Come Sunday evening, will he be the one holding the Harley J. Earl trophy overhead?
“Even with the way the cars run all week, it’s no guarantee,” he said. “It’s still a chess match. You’ve still got to put yourself in the right position and be there at the end.
“I’m comfortable, I guess, more than anything right now. … I guess I’m just calm at this point. It’s just a matter of waiting until Sunday and going out and doing our job.”
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