The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 24, 2016
February 23, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Of the two biggest races on the planet, a driver can establish himself as one of the all-time greats by winning either the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500. A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty established themselves as living legends with Foyt the first to win four Indy 500s and Petty the winningest Daytona 500 driver in history with seven victories.
Then there are the great drivers who seemingly couldn’t catch a break at either of these two events. Michael Andretti never won the Indianapolis 500 despite dominating the race on many occasions. He holds the dubious distinction of most laps led by a driver who never won the Indy 500. The late Dale Earnhardt often dominated the Daytona 500, but did not win it until his 20th try in 1998.
Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., has already established himself as one of the best in the business with three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and two Brickyard 400s. He is also among the winningest drivers in Daytona International Speedway history, but none of his 18 victories have come in the Daytona 500.
So the Brickyard Legend has another shot to steer his way into victory lane in Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500, which would solidify his greatness as a racing immortal.
“I think SPEED had a special going on last week about guys that hadn't won it,” Stewart said. “I saw three or four clips of races where I remember we had a shot and let it get away from us.
“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. It's one that you just can't afford to make a mistake.”
As owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing he already has a car on the front row as rookie driver Danica Patrick won the pole last Sunday becoming the first female driver ever to win a pole in NASCAR’s premier series. Stewart was even asked how big it would be if she somehow won the race on Sunday.
A better question might be how big would it be if Stewart finally won the Daytona 500?
“Yeah, people seem to forget there are 42 other drivers in this race because they are focusing on just one driver,” Stewart said in an ironic twist considering Patrick drives for his team. “But yes, it would be big, for sure, if I could finally win this race.
“It took Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Darrell Waltrip a long time to win the Daytona 500, so you can look at it that way or you can look at guys like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin that have never won it. You never say, ‘Well, it's okay because there is still that opportunity that it couldn't happen, that it might not happen.’ You approach each year with the attitude of doing everything you can to win it. If it doesn't happen, the only thing you can say is you have to wait 365 days to do it again. That's the reality of it. That's what makes the plane ride home suck. There's nothing you can do about it. You can go win the race the next week somewhere else, but it's not the Daytona 500. Once you start this first race, once the first race of the year is over, you either accomplished the goal or you got to wait a whole year to do it again.”
Prior to joining NASCAR, Stewart was the face of what is now known as the IZOD IndyCar Series. He won the 1997 IndyCar title and was always a threat at the Indianapolis 500, but he never won “The World’s Biggest Race.”
“It feels like you got mule-kicked and nothing you could do for a year,” he said. “You sit there and think about what you did wrong, what you could have done different. It's a miserable feeling waiting, feeling like you have to wait the whole calendar year to get that opportunity again.”
Restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega is a black art unto itself; completely unusual to any other style of racing for the rest of the season. It’s a combination of a physics experiment gone awry with balls rolling around the lottery drum.
“That's the most educated way I've ever heard it been put,” Stewart said. “It is exactly that way. 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. 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 take the best racecar in the field and a chance not to get through. It is exactly that combination.
“This race and the Indianapolis 500 -- 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.
“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.”
Stewart has parked his No. 14 Chevrolet for the remainder of the weekend and won’t bring it out again until it takes the grid for the Daytona 500. The pre-race preparation is over and he will not take the track in Saturday’s final practice session.
“It’s kind of weird on Friday to be sitting here and I won’t see that car again until Sunday,” Stewart said. “So, we’ve actually run all we’re going to run the car until the 500, which the motor that was in the car today is the race engine, so we basically worked on our chassis set-up and made sure we did our final run on the motor just to make sure there were no vibrations and no leaks and no problems. I don’t know where we ended-up in the second session, if we were still on the top of the board or not, but it seemed like it had really good speed and I’m excited about Sunday now. It’s going to be kind of nice to have a day off from the Cup car and be able to focus strictly on the Nationwide car tomorrow. I’m excited. We’ve made it through the whole week without a scratch on that car and it’s about as ready as it can get for the 500. So I’m excited. I feel like we’ve got a car that’s capable of winning the race. It’s just a matter of whether the driver does a good job behind the steering wheel and puts it in the right positions.”
Some may consider that an act of confidence. Others may question Stewart’s unusual calmness.
But the driver says underneath that calm exterior is tension.
“Oh, it always makes you nervous because you always want to win the biggest race of the year,” Stewart said. “But when I say nervous, it’s not like you lose sleep over it. But I guess today when I say I’m calm about it, it’s like I’m really happy with my car. I got out and I looked at (crew chief) Steve Addington and he’s like ‘I’m content if you are,’ and I’m like, I honestly don’t know what else to ask for with the car. So, it’s nice from a driver’s side to be able to say I don’t know what else to ask you for. I don’t know what else I need. So, it’s a good scenario. When there’s not a scratch on it, it’s ready to race. Those guys are going to have the whole day tomorrow to just get everything ready and go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and make sure everything is absolutely perfect and ready for Sunday. That’s a position I don’t know that we’ve ever been in. I think we’ve always run final practice and if nothing else, at least run 15 or 20 laps in final practice. To have this year and know that we’re finished and ready to go, it’s nice for those guys to have that opportunity and time to get ready for the race, and we’re not going to be doubled-up tomorrow, so we’ll have a pretty relaxing day tomorrow to get ready for Sunday.”
“The 500 is still the most stress that the driver goes through. It's definitely no secret.”
Stewart was able to play team owner and revel in Patrick’s historic pole last week. But come Race Day he no longer thinks as the owner but rather as a driver – a driver that has never won the Daytona 500.
“To me, my eye is still on Sunday,” he said. “The ownership side was last Sunday, but this Sunday I want it from the driver's side.”
Spoken like a true champion.