DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart typically shines during Speedweeks, the nine-day span where he cements himself as a top contender to win the Daytona 500.
He’s back in the spotlight this year, just not the way he’s been in the past.
Stewart has so far been overshadowed by Danica Patrick, who drove a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to the pole in qualifying for the Daytona 500. It’s made Patrick, not Stewart, the star so far at Daytona.
As Patrick’s car owner, Stewart is just fine with that.
“I’ll be honest, the pole didn’t matter to me personally,” Stewart said after Patrick qualified first for Sunday’s season-opening race. “It was more as an owner, wanting Danica to be in the top two.”
He got his wish, with Patrick locking herself into the field with the fastest lap of last Sunday’s qualifying session. It was an all-around stellar qualifying session for SHR, which also had Ryan Newman post the fourth fastest time and Stewart one spot behind in fifth.
It was a demonstration of offseason preparation for a team that spent the winter not only readying for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, but also running three Sprint Cup cars this season with the full-time addition of Patrick.
“This was probably one of the most difficult winters that I can remember from my 15 years of going through offseasons here for teams to actually get prepared to come down here to Daytona,” Stewart said. “To have three cars in the top five like that, just really, really appreciative and excited that we were able to bring three consistent cars down like this.”
Stewart can bask in his role as owner only until Thursday, when it will be time for him to start focusing on the Daytona 500. It was in the back of his mind after qualifying last Sunday, when he was proud of Patrick and the SHR organization but knew what was ahead for him as a driver.
“To me, my eye is still on next Sunday. Ownership side this Sunday, next Sunday I want it from the driver’s side,” he said.
There’s no questioning how bad Stewart wants the win.
Despite three Cup championships, 47 career wins in NASCAR’s top series and a record that proves he’s as one of the most talented and versatile drivers in the world, Stewart has several glaring holes on his resume and one of them is the Daytona 500.
In 17 seasons spanning NASCAR and IndyCar, Stewart has been able to cross most everything off his to-do list. But he has fallen short 14 times in the Daytona 500. He’s won 18 career races at Daytona – four in the July Cup race – but never in the biggest race of them all.
Coincidentally, he’s also never won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the Southern 500 at Darlington or his beloved Indianapolis 500. He turned down an offer from Roger Penske in December to return to the Indy 500 in a Penske car this season after an 11-year absence from the race he was obsessed with as a child.
It’s because his commitment must be on his NASCAR organization, must be on his No. 14 Chevrolet, and right now the task is to finally grab a Daytona 500 victory. He was reminded of how close he’s come while watching a recent special on SPEED about drivers who have failed to win the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule.
“I saw three or four clips of races where I remember we had a shot and let it get away from us,” he said. “Everything has to go right. The Indy 500 is the same way. It’s easy to compare those two because everything has to go right that whole day.
“You don’t normally get the opportunity to have a mistake and come back from it. It just seems like it’s hard to make up from a mistake. You look at the guys that normally have that trophy at the end of the day, they’re guys that had no drama at all during their race.”
Stewart’s best shot at the Daytona 500 was probably 2008, when he was leading with a half lap remaining. He went low to hook up with then-teammate Kyle Busch, and Kurt Busch pushed Newman into the lead and to the win. In 2002, Stewart was dominant in everything through Speedweeks, only to have an engine failure two laps into the Daytona 500.
Greg Zipadelli, who was crew chief for Stewart 10 years, believes the duo had multiple shots to win the Daytona 500 and other big races that have eluded Smoke.
“I honestly can sit here and say that four or five of 10 years together, we shoulda, coulda won the Daytona 500,” Zipadelli said. “We did all we could do at that time, we put an awful lot of effort into our speedway cars ... we led a lot of laps, and had some crazy wrecks and some half-a-lap to go passes. Just crazy things.”
Stewart believes luck is just as important as skill and car setup when it comes to the big races.
“You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side, do everything you can to build the fastest car you’ve got,” he said. “Then if you don’t have the luck to go with it – even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched, nothing happens to the car, if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time at the end, it can take you out of the opportunity to (win).”
Zipadelli said the duo has taken some solace in their two Brickyard 400 wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the big losses still sting. Stewart had a shot at winning the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007 until a late flat tire dropped him to sixth.
Stewart can’t dwell on it, said Zipadelli, who is now the competition director at SHR.
“I think the worst thing you can do is look at it and put extra pressure on yourself to try and make something happen because that’s usually when it doesn’t,” he said. “You’ve got to roll with it and put your effort in and hopefully you are blessed that day.”
Easier said than done, especially this Sunday. Stewart knows that from all his years racing at Daytona and Indy.
“Those two races, the drama that’s involved in those two, the pressure that you put on yourself, I’ve never had any other race like it,” he said. “Not any championship race or anything. If you go to Daytona and Indy, there’s just something about running those two races that you don’t get anywhere else. You don’t have that emotion. That’s part of the equation that doesn’t get factored into the other races because it just doesn’t exist like it does here and Indy.”