DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — There is a reason Tony Stewart enjoys racing at Daytona International Speedway as much as anywhere on the Sprint Cup circuit: he wins on NASCAR’s most celebrated track a lot.Nineteen times, actually, which is second on Daytona’s all-time list behind only Dale Earnhardt’s 34. One of Stewart’s victories came in the 2012 Coke Zero 400, and he’ll try to make it two in a row Saturday night when the green flag drops for the race that signals the start of the second half of NASCAR’s season.“Definitely, any place you win 19 times, you kind of look forward to coming back to,” said Stewart, whose most recent success at Daytona came in February when he won the Nationwide race that preceded the Daytona 500.
The 500, however, is perhaps the biggest hole in the otherwise sparkling resume of Stewart, a three-time Cup champion who has 48 career victories (with at least one in each of his 15 seasons)
“I’d trade a couple of these (summer) races for a Daytona 500,” Stewart said recently. “There’s definitely a lot more pressure in February than there is here in July. You still want to win at Daytona no matter when it is, but there’s a lot more pressure going into the 500 than the 400.”
Stewart was thinking about what it would take to again win Saturday’s race (he’s won four of the summer events at Daytona), for which he qualified 13th Friday. Last year’s victory came when Stewart maneuvered past Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth late in the race. Stewart crossed the finish line as a huge wreck in Turn 4 unfolded behind him.In doing so, he invoked how one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks does things late in games.“It’s very much what I call a Peyton Manning deal,” said Stewart on Friday. “You are constantly calling an audible in those last two or three laps. It may work. It may not work. You can’t sit there and say, ‘OK, this is the playbook, this is what we do, this is where we want to be on that last lap. There are no guarantees. It’s adjusting to what you think you need to do by what you are seeing in the mirror and what you are seeing in front of you.”
Stewart is 16th in the points standings and would qualify as one of the wild cards for the Chase for the Cup thanks to his victory at Dover in June. Stewart – an owner in his Stewart-Haas Racing team – had gotten off to a slow start this season. Symbolic of that – and his career-long frustrations in the Daytona 500 – was a 41st-place finish in the season opener.
Stewart said his team’s adjustment to the new “Gen 6” car – not the burden of adding Danica Patrick to SHR’s stable of what is now three cars – is the main reason for the shaky beginning.
“We have enough depth to cover three teams,” said Stewart, whose team also includes Ryan Newman. “We planned for the expansion all winter. But with the new car there were a lot of parts and things that we had to really wait late in the offseason for to get completed. We got ourselves
behind with that. I think we have caught up since then“But it was the same for everybody. Some teams just did a better job of getting off on the right foot than we did.”