Rear ruling doesn't douse Stewart-Haas optimism
February 16, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For a brief period just after Danica Patrick's early Daytona 500 qualifying run Sunday, she held a front row starting position. By the time the remainder of the 49 cars had completed their two-lap runs on the famous Daytona International Speedway high banks, she was 25th on the scoring pylon.
But even if she or Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart -- who was 35th fastest -- had won the Coors Light Pole position, per NASCAR rules they would still start the Feb. 23 race from the rear of the field because they had to replace blown engines in their Chevrolets on Saturday.
For last year's pole-winner Patrick, it is a discouraging reality and difficult way to spend the next few days preparing for her third Daytona 500.
Her team owner Stewart, who will make his 16th Daytona 500 start, was more philosophical, taking the attitude that being relegated to the rear of the field is merely an extra obstacle to overcome -- a more dramatic way to perhaps score his first victory in NASCAR's biggest race.
"There's no silver lining in starting at the back of the 500," Stewart said when asked if there was any solace in at least having his teammate alongside to navigate through the field. "It's not where you want to be, it's not where our cars should be for sure. We've got better cars than that. (Saturday) was just an unfortunate deal. But I stand behind the Hendrick engine department one thousand percent. We've got the best engine department in the garage area and (Saturday) didn't change that."
Did Stewart appeal to NASCAR about the ruling, which essentially negates his or Patrick's performance in Thursday's Budweiser Duel qualifying races?
"Does it matter? Would it change anything?" Stewart said calmly. "Listen, if you can't get to the front in 500 miles you're not going to get there anyway so it doesn't matter where you start."
Patrick agreed and was optimistic for race day, despite being unhappy with the circumstances.
"It's defeating, it's very unfortunate," Patrick said candidly, looking and sounding more resolved than her words would indicate. "It sucks to know that no matter what you do it doesn't matter at all. I'm going to start from the back of the (Duel) and I'm going to start from the back of the 500, which I don't understand.
"It's a bummer, but what NASCAR says goes and I'm sure there will be times it is in my favor and other times, like this one, it's not going to be. But it's a speedway and if there's ever a place to make it up, it's on the speedway."
Patrick's veteran crew chief Tony Gibson also tried to remain upbeat even if he conceded it makes for an uphill battle. He said he didn't have the heart to tell Patrick that she had to start at the back, leaving that to SHR Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli.
"I'm still a little baffled on it and how that works," Gibson said. "But we'll take our licking and go on. It is what it is and whatever their decision is we've got to roll with it. We'll work hard and make our car good for the 500."
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton explained the rule Sunday that puts Patrick, Stewart and Bobby Labonte -- whose car also needed a new engine -- to the rear of the starting grid for both the Duel and the 500-miler. The NASCAR rulebook allows for one engine change during Daytona Speedweeks, and that is between the Duel races and the Daytona 500. Anything else is an unapproved engine change, and the penalty for an unapproved engine change is to start at the rear of the race.
"We haven't run into this very often," Pemberton said. "But it's not new. This has come up. Years ago it might have been a different way but when we look at this, it is an extension of pole day and qualifying day, it's really all qualifying.
"It's as simple as that. The Duels are not (viewed) as a race, only an extension of qualifying."
The ruling raises questions of strategy, how Stewart and Patrick will approach their 150-mile qualifying races, whose finishing order sets the starting lineup for the Daytona 500. For these two SHR competitors, a win Thursday would be a confidence-builder and time of celebration, but it wouldn't help their position on the starting grid Sunday.
Will they race hard for the win and chance wrecking their car and having to go to a backup? Or will they play it safe and hang back?
"There's not a lot to gain for us," Gibson said. "Your sponsors expect you to be there and the fans want you to run. But we don't want to wreck what is our best car either. Just kind of disheartening to know … whatever happens Thursday, we're starting in the back. But that's the nature of this beast and we'll go on and make our sponsors and fans proud and try to win the Daytona 500."
It certainly makes Patrick's Saturday night debut in The Sprint Unlimited more valuable, even if her night ended in a crash midway through the non-points race. Gibson was particularly pleased with what he saw.
"She was doing an awesome job," Gibson said. "She ran up front, got shuffled to the back, got back up front, ran in the middle, was racing two-wide and four-wide. That's the kind of stuff she needed to be in to learn for this Sunday.
"So if you were to pull in early (in the Duel race), you don't get that experience, you don't know what your car is going to do. If you stay out, you take the chance of wrecking. We want the time on the race track to take that knowledge into Sunday."
Stewart, who is returning to competition in the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy after being sidelined the past seven months with a broken leg, sounded confident in his Daytona 500 chances -- despite still healing physically and now having the starting position setback.
"I guess I don't have any feelings about (the grid penalty) because I feel like I've got a car that can go up and win the 500 anyway no matter where we start," Stewart said, offering a smile. "To me, whatever it is, it is. I guess I'm more worried about getting my car ready for Sunday and really don't care where I start.
"They could start me a lap down and I don't care. We could get back on the lead lap and win the race. I'm not going to spend my time worrying about why it is.
"I always like my chances here. You can't look at record books and say we have a great shot at it because we've never done it before. But you can't win 19 races here and not win the big one at some point in the deal. I don't have any reservations about where we start. It's no drama to me, just focusing on what we have to do to go fast."