DAYTONA BEACH, FLA: Tony Stewart has had plenty of chances to win the Daytona 500, and he’s had his heart broken every time.
Stewart wound up on his roof in 2001, and his engine blew in the opening laps of the 2002 race. He finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004, and wrecked while leading in 2007.
The most difficult defeat was likely 2008, when Ryan Newman was pushed past Stewart on the last lap to snatch away the victory. Last year, Stewart was second on the final restart but faded to a 13th-place finish and rookie Trevor Bayne pulled off the upset.
The race is such a crapshoot that one of the Daytona 500 rookies, Danica Patrick, has said she believes she’s got as good a chance to win the race as anyone.
“I felt comfortable. I feel more than ready for [today],” said Patrick, who walked away from a violent crash in Thursday’s qualifying race.
Her car is owned by Stewart, the defending NASCAR champion who goes into today’s season-opening Daytona 500 with a disappointing 0-for-13 record in “The Great American Race.” Stewart has been reminded every day since arriving in Daytona about his inability to win the big race here.
“It’s not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column,” Stewart said. “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.”
He has a tremendous opportunity once again.
Stewart, who closed last season with five victories in the final 10 races to win his third NASCAR title, has given no indication he’s slowed down one bit during the offseason. He lost the exhibition Budweiser Shootout last week when Kyle Busch passed him at the finish line, but rallied to dominate his qualifying race Thursday.
The victory in the 150-mile race gave Stewart the third starting spot in the Daytona 500. And unlike years past, when he’s hung around the back of the pack and waited to make his move, he’s given every indication he wants to race hard today.
His performance during Speedweeks, he believes, has made him the driver everyone should want to work with on the race track.
“I want those guys to see that we’ve got strength,” he said. “I think it’s an advantage to do that at this point of the game, showing that guys around you are going to hopefully want to be around you, and know that you’ve got a car that can stay up there, so they want to stay with you.”
The irony is that Stewart has always been one of the strongest drivers at Daytona. His 17 victories at the track rank second only to the 34 tallied by the late Dale Earnhardt.
But like Earnhardt, it’s the big race that’s eluded Stewart. It took Earnhardt 20 tries to win the Daytona 500.
Hall of famer Darrell Waltrip needed 17 attempts to win the Daytona 500. Mark Martin has never won this race. Neither have former NASCAR champions Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte or Kurt Busch, a three-time runner-up and the guy who pushed Newman past Stewart in 2008.
“It’s the race that can define a driver’s career,” Busch said. “It’s a priority because of the prestigious value and what it can do long-term and the immediate impact. Like the Super Bowl, this race is our spectacle.”
Stewart, meanwhile, has six top 10s in his 13 starts. But he’s the only driver in NASCAR history with three or more championships who has never won the Daytona 500.
“I wouldn’t trade three championships to win Daytona,” said Stewart, who was also winless in his five Indianapolis 500 attempts.
“We’ve been leading late in these races, and so I feel like the law of averages, we’re going to get one eventually.”
Problem is, he may end up at the mercy of others as the style of racing at Daytona has shifted back to the pack that fans preferred.
Racing at restrictor-plate tracks the last few years had morphed into a two-car tandem style as drivers hooked up with a partner and took turns pushing each other around the track. NASCAR said a survey of fans showed that more than 80 percent “hated” the practice, and series officials worked hard during the offseason to develop a rules package that would return the racing to the three-wide packs.
NASCAR also banned driver-to-driver communications, which pole sitter Carl Edwards wants reinstated.
“I still think that NASCAR ought to allow us to talk between cars. I still think that is safer,” Edwards said.
“You really need the spotter to help you to make sure that you are clear, especially toward the end of these races. It is just amazing the chaos out there and you are trying to figure out which line is moving and as a driver you look up and think you are clear but at the same time you are listening and I have to hear it from my spotter because you can’t always see what is out there.”
The Shootout was marred by three multicar wrecks, and there was a five-car accident in the first of Thursday’s qualifying races.
But Paul Menard, who was involved in accidents Saturday and Thursday, openly criticized the way the pack racing has developed over Speedweeks.
“We tore up two really good race cars not of our doing, and they’re going to tear up a hell of a lot more,” he said. “I’m concerned we’re not going to finish.”