Sunday, February 26, 2012

Breaking Down the 2012 Daytona 500

By Jerry Bonkowski

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart has won just about everything there is to win in NASCAR, including three Sprint Cup championships.

But one major prize continues to confound and elude Stewart, that of winning the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. He’s won 17 races across several different series at Daytona International Speedway over the years, but never the Great American Race.

“I don’t think we feel jinxed,” Stewart said. “We’ve had some really good cars here and we’ve just missed. There have been a lot of (races) that have slipped away and slipped through our fingers. But we’ve had good luck here; we just haven’t had that good luck during the 500 yet. So we’ll just keep digging.”

Stewart is bound and determined to change that in Sunday’s 54th running of the Daytona 500 – hoping to bookend the end of last season, where he won the last race and then the Sprint Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, and start off 2012 with a triumph in the season-opening great race.

“I feel like (with) the law of averages, we’re going to get one eventually,” Stewart said.

Stewart has long been known in NASCAR as a momentum driver. The better he does, the more successful and consistent he becomes. That was optimally illustrated during last season’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, when Stewart won five of the 10 events.

While many drivers talk about building upon momentum they may have earned at the end of the previous season, Stewart delivers. Thus far in this year’s edition of Speedweeks at Daytona, he has recorded a runner-up finish in last Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, and backed that up with a win in Thursday’s first of two Gatorade Duel Twin 150s.

Without question, Stewart has arguably placed himself in perhaps the best position he’s ever been in coming into the 500. While victory is not guaranteed, what he’s done thus far is certainly a promising precursor for Sunday’s race.

“It’s good momentum for the crew, everybody at Stewart Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year,” Stewart said after winning the first Duel on Thursday. “It gives you confidence going into Sunday.

“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 (draft) with him. Hopefully that will work for us on Sunday, too.”

But Stewart is also realistic.

“It’s a long race on Sunday and a lot can happen,” he admitted. “Even though we had success today (Thursday), it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday.”

Stewart will be making his 14th career start in the Daytona 500. Sure, he’s come close several times – including runnerup in 2004, third in 2008 and fifth in 2006 – but he finds himself in a similar situation that the late Dale Earnhardt did for the first 19 years of chasing the checkered flag at the 500: he came up empty-handed each time.

By virtue of persistence and stubbornness, Earnhardt would not stop until he finally achieved the biggest crown jewel of his racing career, finally winning the 500 in 1998 – the only time he ever achieved that accomplishment before tragically being killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Stewart has often been compared to Earnhardt when it comes to persistence and stubbornness. They’re both cut from the same cloth in the sense that they keep coming back at something until they finally get it right.

That’s why Stewart is not giving up on his hopes of winning the 500. His philosophy is simple: if it’s his time, it will happen.

If it’s not, he’ll join a long list of NASCAR luminaries who had otherwise outstanding careers, but fell short of winning the sport’s crown jewel, drivers like Rusty Wallace (23 times), Mark Martin (27 times), Bobby (19 tries) and Terry Labonte (will race in his 30th 500 on Sunday).

Not bad company, indeed.

Yet as much as he wants to win the 500, Stewart has achieved some equally lofty – if not greater – accomplishments during his Cup career.

“I wouldn’t trade three championships to win Daytona,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column. Realistically, we have two tracks we haven't won at; and the Daytona 500 we haven't won.

“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 winning it. Darrell Waltrip and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it.”

In an odd twist, of all NASCAR champions that have won at least three Cup titles – Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty and Stewart – the man they used to call Terrible Tony is the only one still to not have added a Harley J. Earl trophy (Daytona 500 winner trophy) to his mantle.

Trevor Bayne proved in last year’s race that if he can do it, anyone can, and that provides encouragement to Stewart. But because of the unpredictable nature that is the 500, that also means Stewart could leave Daytona Sunday evening 0-for-14 in 500 starts, as well.

He’s even gone so far to predict teammate Danica Patrick, making her Daytona 500 debut, has a legitimate shot at winning. Stewart also cites Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2011 season runnerup Carl Edwards (who also has never won the 500), Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick as among his list of potential favorites to win Sunday.

But more than anything, Stewart wants it to be his turn. Finally. Starting from the third position Sunday, he’s going to give it everything he’s got and hope for the best. If he doesn’t do it, he doesn’t do it.

In addition to Stewart, keep your eye on several other drivers in NASCAR’s so-called Super Bowl: Kyle Busch, pole sitter Edwards, darkhorses Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith, Patrick, Kurt Busch and Patrick.

The two Busch brothers will particularly have the spotlight upon them for some of their misdeeds last season that carry over to the new season. Kyle Busch is still smarting from being suspended for the weekend (and losing primary sponsor M&Ms for the final two races) after a run-in with Ron Hornaday Jr. at the November truck series race at Texas.

Kurt Busch had several blowups during 2011, but none more fateful than going ballistic at ESPN broadcaster Jerry Punch during the season finale at Homestead, an incident that eventually led to Busch’s release from Penske Racing. He’s now racing for the much smaller and significantly less-funded Phoenix Racing, trying to rebuild his career and proving that he’s a changed man.

Even though his team is still waiting for potential penalties (which could occur next Tuesday following Sunday’s race) from NASCAR for improper modifications to his race car during tech inspection last week, Jimmie Johnson is looking to regain the same kind of form that paced him to a record five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010.

Also watch for Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Chevrolet. Kahne will be making his regular season debut for Hendrick Motorsports, and if expectations are to be realized, Kahne could start off his Hendrick tenure with a big bang if he gets to the finish line ahead of everyone else.

And what race preview would be complete without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Junior is still looking to snap what has become an agonizing 129-race winless streak. What better way to do that than Sunday, which would mark his second 500 triumph (also did it in 2004), which would be one of the few things that would put him ahead of his late father when it comes to notable accomplishments.

On the pit box, keep a keen eye on crew chiefs Steve Addington and Darian Grubb. It was Grubb that led Stewart to last year’s championship, only to be fired at season’s end. He’s now crew chief for Denny Hamlin. Meanwhile, Addington moves from being Kurt Busch’s former crew chief to replace Grubb as Stewart’s crew chief.

More often than not, the end result in the Daytona 500 turns out to be a surprise. No matter how much you prepare for it, it’s next to impossible to predict what will ultimately happen.

But if he can finally snap his 500 drought, winning won’t necessarily be a surprise to Stewart. Rather, for him, he says, “it’d be about time.”

(For The Sports Xchange)

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