Wednesday, Aug 17

Tony Stewart: A Not-So Even Playing Field

Wednesday, Feb 13 1849

A new car. It’s a prospect that can be both daunting and exhilarating. It’s visually appealing yet financially intimidating. It’s a rite of passage and often times reflective of varying life stages, from living the single life to joining the ranks of parenthood. And the options? Practically limitless. Chevrolet alone is introducing 13 new vehicles this year. Whether in the market for the sportiness of a Corvette, the luxury of an Impala or the spaciousness of a Traverse, possibilities abound for satisfying the wants and needs a new car provides.

Above all, a new car is a clean slate. There is no history to overcome. With little to zero mileage, it’s free of dents, dings or scratches. It’s like a new start in life, not unlike what will unfold during the next two weeks at the world center of speed – Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway – where the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season begins.

One of the main headline-makers as part of the season’s debut is nothing other than a new car. Sprint Cup’s sixth-generation (Gen-6) car, which was designed to accommodate greater manufacturer brand identity while increasing rivalry and faster racing, means teams will be dealing with a number of unknowns as the season unfolds. However, those question marks are the same for everyone which, in theory, equates to a level playing field.

That’s a theory that exists on paper. But races aren’t won or lost on paper. Triumph and defeat are found on the asphalt of the tracks that make up the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. Perhaps no one knows this better than Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

For Stewart, the rare breed of racer who successfully carries the dual title of driver and owner at SHR, dealing with a new car is something that’s not so new. In fact, it’s an asset for Stewart, the T-shirt and jeans-wearing everyman from Columbus, Ind.

The unknown is a known entity for Stewart, who as an up-and-coming USAC driver had to adapt to different cars at different tracks – some asphalt and some dirt – in a matter of just a few laps. In his 30-plus years of racing, the versatile Stewart has adapted and overcome his way to 12 driving championships – three of which have come in the elite Sprint Cup Series (2002, 2005, 2011). The pursuit of a fourth Sprint Cup title kicks off this weekend at Daytona, where a career that has already seen 47 Sprint Cup victories rolls on.

Stewart made his first career Sprint Cup start at Daytona on Feb. 14, 1999. Since making his series debut 15 years ago at the historic, 2.5-mile superspeedway, Stewart has earned a pole, four wins, six top-threes, eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 665 laps in his 28 career, point-paying Sprint Cup starts at Daytona. His average Daytona start is 11.6, his average finish is 16.1, and he has a lap completion rate of 92.2 percent. Additionally, he enters Speedweeks having won the track’s most recent Sprint Cup race – the 2012 Coke Zero 400 last July.

Success at Daytona hasn’t been limited to Sprint Cup. Stewart has wins in the former IROC Series, as well as the Nationwide Series, where he has six victories in the season-opening race, including four straight from 2008 through 2011. Despite those accolades, the most glaring omission from Stewart’s resume is a Daytona 500 win. Although he has yet to add his name to the Harley J. Earl trophy, Stewart has earned a total of 18 career Daytona wins – a feat that places him second on the track’s all-time win list, 16 behind the legendary Dale Earnhardt (34 Daytona wins). But as another Speedweeks dawns, Stewart has the opportunity to add four more wins to his already impressive tally, as he’ll compete in the Feb. 16 non-points Sprint Unlimited, the Feb. 21 non-points Budweiser Duel, the Feb. 23 Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race, and the 55th Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.

With all that Stewart has accomplished, the opportunities to experience “firsts” are few and far between. With Daytona again upon Stewart, the future NASCAR Hall-of-Famer will have multiple chances to experience the thrill of a first, and a new car may just be the vehicle he needs to score that elusive Daytona 500 victory.

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