Dustin Long's take on all things NASCAR
by Dustin Long
For whatever reason, Daytona International Speedway enjoys playing with some of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, making them endure years of anguish before winning the 500. Darrell Waltrip waited 17 years, Dale Earnhardt 20. Tony Stewart is at 13 and counting.
Waltrip and Earnhardt showed how much their Daytona victories meant when they finally achieved them. Waltrip danced. Earnhardt exclaimed. “Yes!’’ Earnhardt said as he climbed from the roof of his car after winning the 500.
“The Daytona 500 is ours,’’ Earnhardt said in Victory Lane that day in 1998. “We’ve won it. We’ve won it. We’ve won it.’’
Those are experiences Stewart can’t share. Maybe some day. Maybe even Sunday.
Stewart again will be a favorite to win the 500 after another sterling Speedweeks where he finished second in the Bud Shootout before winning his qualifying race Thursday.
Of course, Stewart’s success during Speedweeks is not new. It’s the 500 that he has problems with. Just like Kyle Busch finds ways to falter in the Chase, Stewart has misfortune in the 500.
He is the only driver in NASCAR history with three or more championships who does not have a Daytona 500 victory.
Consider that he was winless in five attempts at the Indianapolis 500, and, for as talented as he is, Stewart is without a victory in the crown jewels of two racing series that he has won championships.
Stewart likely will never get another chance to win the Indy 500 but for how long will the Daytona 500 frustrate him?
Recently asked where winning the Daytona 500 ranked among his personal bucket list, Stewart said: “Very high on it.’’
Stewart can win any other race at Daytona — his 17 overall victories put him second on the all-time wins list there behind Earnhardt’s 34.
While not as dramatic as some of Earnhardt’s Daytona defeats, Stewart’s disappointments have been nearly as great.
Last year, he was beside Trevor Bayne on the final restart but got detached from Mark Martin, who was pushing him, and fell back in the field.
In 2007, Stewart won the Shootout and his qualifying race only to finish last in the 500 after he was wrecked by Kurt Busch. In 2008, Stewart’s worst finish in all of Speedweeks was a third-place showing — in the 500.
In 2005, Stewart led a race-high 107 laps, falling out of the lead in the final laps and engaging in a spirited duel with Jimmie Johnson that continued after the race and sent both to the NASCAR hauler to meet with series officials.
In ‘04, he led a race-high 97 laps only to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. take the lead with 20 laps to go and beat him by a few yards. In ‘02, Stewart won the Shootout, placed second in his qualifying race and then finished last when his engine blew on the third lap.
It is this past that keeps Stewart from boasting even after the week he’s had.
“Even though we had success today, it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday,’’ Stewart said of the 500, moments after his Duel win. “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.’’
Maybe this will be Stewart’s year. Then again ...
ROUSH RESURGENCE Even after watching Matt Kenseth win the second qualifying race on Thursday, car owner Jack Roush admitted to being embarrassed by it.
It was the first time in 25 years a Roush car had won a qualifying race at Daytona.
Kenseth’s victory means that three of the top four starting spots in Sunday’s race will be Roush Fenway Racing entries. Carl Edwards won the pole with teammate Greg Biffle second. Kenseth will start fourth.
The resurgence goes back to last season. Hendrick Motorsports swept the pole for all four restrictor-plate races but the Wood Brothers, who are aligned with Roush, had success. Eventually that information transferred to the Roush cars and they began to qualify better at those races as the year progressed. That trend has continued.
The key now is to continue Ford’s success at Daytona. Ford won both Cup races there last year with Bayne winning the 500 and Roush’s David Ragan winning the July race.
PIT STOPS A number of drivers complained about overheating issues in the Gatorade Duel. With temperatures expected to be much cooler for Sunday’s race, it might not be as big a problem in the 500. ... Danica Patrick on her impact at the end of the first qualifying race: “You just have to brace yourself,’’ she said. “I just have to be glad that I’m a small driver and that I’ve got room.” ... Regan Smith finished second to Matt Kenseth in the second qualifying race. It marked the second year in a row Smith finished second in a Daytona qualifying race. ... Jimmie Johnson wasn’t thrilled with some cars not on the lead lap racing with the leaders on the last lap: “It was unfortunate there at the end that there were some lapped cars that were kind of mixed in with the leaders. It would have been nice if they would have let us race there; at least from the white flag on. I understand trying to get a lap back, but when the white (flag) came out I wish they would have gotten out of there and I would have had a shot at winning that thing.”
Get Dustin's thoughts weekly throughout the 2012 NASCAR season at AthlonSports.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong