Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tony Stewart: Is it his Time to Finally Win the Daytona 500?

(Photo courtesy Getty Images/NASCAR)

By Jerry Bonkowski

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart has pretty much seen it all in his long and illustrious racing career. From the time he started racing karts, then sprint cars, midgets, Indy cars and ultimately stock cars, Stewart has won numerous races and championships.

But nothing can compare to the way Stewart captured NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship last season: winning five of the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s 10 races, including the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, defeating Carl Edwards in the closest finish in Cup championship history.

And yet, even winning the race wasn’t enough, as he and Edwards finished the race tied in season points. NASCAR was forced to go to the first tiebreaker to determine the champion, and Stewart accomplished that with ease by having more wins in the season (5) to just one for Edwards.

It was a race, a championship battle and a season finale for the ages, perhaps unlike anything Stewart will ever see or take part again in his racing career.

“Our championship battle was probably one of the greatest in the sport,” Stewart said. “No matter what the outcome, if Carl had won it, I would say the same thing. It came down to the two guys leading the points ran first and second. We finished in the top three the last three races together. Nobody finished worse than third the last three races. … I wish I could explain it, but I still can’t. Now we get to start it all over again.”

Stewart’s bid to begin the defense of his championship, as well as embark upon the climb toward a potential second-straight and fourth-overall career Sprint Cup title, both begin in Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

And while last year now appears to be distant history, the jubilation, triumph and achievement has yet to wear off on the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

“The buzz hasn’t worn off yet,” Stewart said. “I mean, in all honesty we have still been riding that high.”

Now it’s back to work. And while Stewart remains, there have been some significant changes at Stewart Haas Racing for 2012.

First, crew chief Darian Grubb, has moved on to become crew chief for Denny Hamlin, Stewart’s former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. Grubb was essentially fired before the Chase began last year, but chose to remain in his role until season’s end. Who knew that, particularly after the way the team struggled during the first 26 races of the season, that it would catch fire so quickly and dominate in the Chase, particularly with 5 wins in the 10-race event.

Replacing Grubb are two old friends of Stewarts. First is the man Stewart calls “the brother I never had,” Greg Zippadelli, who led Stewart to his first two Cup championships in 2002 and 2005 while at JGR, has assumed a new role of director of competition for Stewart Haas Racing (and will also be crew chief for Danica Patrick’s 10-race Sprint Cup foray this season).

The other new face on the team is Steve Addington, former crew chief for another of Stewart’s former JGR teammates, Kyle Busch. Addington comes to SHR after two seasons as crew chief for Kyle’s older brother, Kurt Busch, at Penske Racing.

“It was easy to have Zippy (Greg Zippadelli) and Steve Addington come on board,” Stewart said. “Their focus was on what we were going to do this year, so it kind of got the whole mindset of the shop to not get lazy and think about what we accomplished last year and get working on what we can do to try to repeat this year.”

Talking about repeating and actually doing it are two entirely different things. Only Jimmie Johnson has been able to do that recently, winning an unprecedented five Sprint Cup championships from 2006 to 2010, sandwiched around Stewart’s titles in 2005 and 2011.

Now what matters is Sunday’s Daytona 500. While Stewart has won in the July race at Daytona International Speedway, and 17 times overall in various racing series (including winning the first of Thursday's Duel 150s) he has never won the sport’s most prestigious event. After winning last season’s championship, not to mention the final race of the season as well, what better way to bookend that effort than to start off the new season defending his title by finally winning the Great American Race, right?

“It’s the highest thing,” Stewart said when asked where winning Daytona 500 is on his personal bucket list of things he still has yet to achieve.

But unlike the way he envisioned winning last season’s championship, Stewart can’t envision how he’d react if he were to ever win the 500. “I don’t know how you could honestly sit there and imagine what that moment would be like,” he said. “You just hope you get to live it.”

At the same time, while winning the Daytona 500 has baffled so many great drivers over the years, including Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and others – not to mention it taking the late Dale Earnhardt 20 years to finally earn a win in the 500, the only time he ever managed to pull off such a feat in his prestigious career – Stewart realizes that even with all the pomp and circumstances and importance of winning the 500, it’s still just one race of 36 en route to a potential championship.

And if it came down to it, he’ll take his three Cup titles over a 500 win any time.

“I wouldn’t trade three championships to win Daytona,” Stewart said. “It’s not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column. Realistically, we haven’t won at the Daytona 500, but we have pretty much accomplished in this sport what we’ve wanted 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. Darrell Waltrip and Dale Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it.”

Is Sunday Stewart’s turn to join that list?

“Time will tell,” he said with the same kind of knowing smile that crossed his face when asked last fall if he would win at Homestead.

(For The Sports Xchange)

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