After 18 years of full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, three-time champion Tony Stewart makes his final appearance at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway when he’ll drive the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Ducks Unlimited Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.
Saturday night’s race comes just six days after Stewart’s last-corner pass Sunday afternoon at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway to capture his 49th career victory that broke an 84-race winless drought. The victory was a big step toward securing a berth for his No. 14 team in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Few drivers have enjoyed the success the 45-year-old Stewart has on the 2.5-mile high-banked, restrictor-plate track.
Between points-paying Sprint Cup races, non-points races, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the former IROC series, Stewart has a total of 19 Daytona wins. The tally places Stewart second on the track’s all-time win list, 15 behind the late, great Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and was part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.
Stewart says one of his most memorable moments at Daytona came racing Earnhardt in 2001.
“I still think the first Shootout that I won by outrunning Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. is what I am most proud of,” Stewart said.
“Dale Sr. ran second to us. Just knowing that you were able to outrace the best racecar driver that has ever been to Daytona International Speedway, that is something I have always been extremely proud of. He knows every trick in the book and threw every one of them at us. We were able to hold him off and make it work for us.”
Stewart is a four-time Sprint Cup winner at Daytona, having scored victories in the annual Fourth of July-weekend race in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012 – the most among active drivers. Augmenting those four wins are nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and 668 laps led in 34 career, points-paying Daytona starts.
Stewart arrives at Daytona with a reinvigorated focus on the future buoyed by recent success. He qualified sixth and ran in the top-10 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway three weekends ago. The following weekend, he qualified third and finished seventh at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. On the road course Sunday at Sonoma, he started 10th and led the final 22 laps that saw him lose, then regain, the lead on the final lap.
It was crew chief Mike Bugarewicz’s call to pit Stewart seconds before a caution that propelled him from midpack into the lead. Stewart said decisions like that are turning the No. 14 into a contender.
“I told my team, I think we’re gaining on it,” Stewart said. “I think it’s a scenario where you crawl before the walk, you walk before you jog, jog before you run, run before you sprint. It’s phases that we’re going through. I felt like, Michigan and Pocono, we got jogging and we’re getting closer to being where we need to be. We’re not there, yet, but we’ve still got time to get there and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time and, if we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows?”
Because he missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 Chase. After securing the victory last week, Stewart will have to race his way in by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into this weekend, Brian Scott is 30th with 205 points while Stewart is 32nd with 196 points.
This weekend isn’t going to be a sentimental review of the past or a celebration of last week’s victory. Stewart says he has a lot of racing to do, especially considering the volatile nature of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona, to earn a Chase berth.
“We’ve still got work to do at Daytona,” Stewart said. “We’re nine (points) out, right now. We can be 39 out by the time we leave Daytona, so there’s a lot that can happen, still.”