The Frontstretch: Bowles-Eye : Stewart's Daytona Near Misses Inching Him Ever Closer To Earnhardt by Thomas Bowles -- Monday February 18, 2008

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Bowles-Eye : Stewart's Daytona Near Misses Inching Him Ever Closer To Earnhardt

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday February 18, 2008


As Tony Stewart sulked Sunday at Daytona – wondering when and how his latest opportunity slipped away – I could only help but think of his connection to a legend.

That connection, to me, is more palpable than ever now.

Perhaps it was because of the historical nature of the day; that as the notes reached a crescendo at the end of the Brooks ‘N' Dunn concert, the black No. 3 car Dale Earnhardt drove to Victory Lane in 1998 was revealed — surrounded by an adoring crowd which stood in awe of the spirit before them.

No doubt, the presence of Earnhardt within the context of Daytona history brought back memories; it appeared even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was choked up after the FOX television crew reminisced about the victory the Intimidator achieved after 19 years of trying, the one which cemented his legendary status within a sport he once dominated.

But as Stewart comes to terms with another disappointment, you have to wonder if he's on his way to matching that hapless 0-for achievement. The man best compared to the Intimidator by the way he conducts himself on and off the track has done his best to work his way up onto the sport's biggest stage; but in the end, Stewart's continued absence from the winner's list is now clearly defined with the late legend whose pain he shares - and whose list of failures are becoming agonizingly similar.

Tony Stewart was all smiles Saturday after winning the inaugural Nationwide Series event of the season, the Camping World 300.

Strapping in for his tenth attempt at the trophy, Stewart had every right to believe Sunday was going to be his day. Toyotas had been stout all week long, and Stewart had done his part to lead the pack; he finished second to teammate Hamlin in his Gatorade Duel, then went out and won the Nationwide Series race with ease two days later. It's the third time in four years he's won the undercard to Sunday's main event, a sizable total that fits well alongside his three victories in the exhibition Bud Shootout, two Duel wins, and even a pair of triumphs in the 400-mile Cup race in July.

But the key to the 500 is to be around for those last 100 miles, a cold reality that came to Stewart courtesy of a wreck while going for the lead with 47 laps remaining last February. So he decided to take this year's version in stride; for the better part of 400 miles, he let teammate Kyle Busch hold the baton. Busch led 86 laps while Stewart hung around about fifth through 15th, riding around until it was time to cash in his poker hand with his newly minted Toyota Camry.

And as the laps wound down, it looked like Stewart was holding the royal flush. He hooked up with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and started charging to the front; and when Casey Mears cut right in front of Stewart, the wreck that should have ended his day left his car spotless — while Mears spun hard into the outside wall, nothing really hit the No. 20. It's the type of luck you need to get on the good side of Victory Lane here; finally, the growing monkey appeared ready to get off Stewart's back.

In position to win, Stewart aced the race's final restart with three laps left; charging forward to first place, he had only the Penske duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch behind him heading to the white flag. Newman, an Indiana native and good friend, had also helped get the No. 20 car to the front over the race's final stages; surely, Stewart would block, Newman would halt, and hold on similar to the way Jimmie Johnson held off friend Casey Mears in 2006 - right? Right?

By the back straightaway of the white flag lap, that question was answered in the form of two blue Dodges blasting by Stewart like he was stopped.

"I just made the wrong decision on the backstretch and tried to get down in front of Kyle (Busch)," said Stewart, fresh from watching his win slip away. "I thought we could get a push down there, but the No. 2 (Kurt Busch) got glued to the No. 12 (Ryan Newman). I don’t know if I could have stopped them anyway, and if I would have changed lanes I think I would have ended up like a bunch of other guys — wrecked."

Of course, that's where Stewart ended up last year with a car that led 35 laps and appeared to be biding its time behind Kurt Busch. Consider this added to a litany of 500 disappointments that includes:

  • 1999 : Stewart captures the outside pole in his Daytona debut, but a mechanical problem sends him behind the wall in a precursor of luck to come. He finishes 28th.
  • 2001 : Getting involved in a savage wreck with 27 laps left, Stewart's car flips end over end in what was easily one of the hardest impacts of his ten-year career. He finishes 36th.
  • 2003 : Possesses one of the few cars capable of challenging Michael Waltrip up front before rain at Daytona shortens the day and leaves Stewart languishing in seventh.
  • 2004 : Leading a race high 97 laps, Stewart is passed in the closing stages by prodigal son Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when the two had long pulled away from everyone else in the pack. He settles for second.
  • 2005 : Leading the most laps for a second straight year - 107 - and running up front with seven laps left before losing the lead to drafting buddy Junior once again; eventually, he would lose the race to Jeff Gordon and wind up seventh.
  • 2006 : Leading 20 of the first 47 laps, Stewart initially looks like the car to beat, but slowly fades a bit over the race's second half and winds up fifth by the checkered flag.

Add in the wreck last season and this last lap snafu, and that brings us to the here and now. It's a remarkably similar set of circumstances comparable to Dale Earnhardt's list of oh-so-close; and while he may have lost his wins on the last lap in more hair-raising fashion (see: 1990 tire, turn three, Derrike Cope), he never lost his confidence that he could eventually win here, a personality trait similar to what Stewart has enveloped. I mean, the man was so confident he offered for any one of us media to come cut his rapidly growing hairdo if he came home with the trophy Sunday night.

Instead, the only scissor-cutting going on was tearing Stewart's dream in half.

"It’s probably one of the most disappointing moments of my racing career tonight," he lamented, watching helplessly Newman stood beaming in Gatorade Victory Lane 100 feet away.

In all, Stewart has led 258 of the last 1,000 laps held for the 500 (five years); that's easily tops on the list, and is the stuff legends are made of. But for whatever reason, Stewart hasn't reached that stage of legends quite yet; and for a man who's won everything there is to win, that reality is more difficult to swallow each time around.

"It’s pretty tough to come in here and say that I’m happy to go from first to third on the last lap of the Daytona 500," he exclaimed.

It's even harder when you come to realize it happens every year, on a day when the best of the best congregated to celebrate their place in the sport; and, despite all his accomplishments, Stewart can't claim that title.


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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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02/18/2008 12:39 PM

Tony has sold out Chevy and America to toyota and I hope he never wins again!!

02/18/2008 01:09 PM

Tony didn’t sell out. His car owner did.

02/18/2008 01:11 PM

By the way, I’m sick of bowties winning anyway!

C in VA
02/18/2008 01:55 PM

If by selling out you mean dumping dumping a poorly run company with inferior products for a better run one with superior product, then yes he has sold out and so have I. People need to get over the hate of Toyota and maybe focus on why the American manufacturers make terrible vehicles and allow themselves to be controlled by the unions that have ruined them.

02/18/2008 02:31 PM

Hey johnboy,give the stupidity a rest.

02/18/2008 04:19 PM

Stewart may “inch closer” at Daytona, but he’ll always be miles apart. It always amazed me the class act Earnhardt developed into. But he was a man to start with and learned over his years. Stewart still hasn’t gotten past the spoiled brat stage and every year appears incapable of moving forward. No matter who he swings at, he’ll never be the “man” in the series.

02/18/2008 05:53 PM

Well, Tony could have won the 500. He did have one opportunity to pull up in front of Kurt before Ryan was there. No courage, no reward.

As for the part about making a mistake by pulling down in front of Kyle. Yup, that was a mistake but it was a mistake made when Tony intentionally laid back and chose to not support Kyle on the restart. Had he of done that, perhaps he might not have been the winner but the Dodge’s would not have breezed on by and his team mate probably would have won. Tony’s self only decision cost JGR a win. I am sure Joe Gibbs was somewhat pleased with the Toyota cars but I also suspect he was enlightened to a team problem that has to be overcome.

Just my view.

02/18/2008 06:54 PM

“It’s probably one of the most disappointing moments of my racing career tonight,”

Just about as disappointing as realizing he’ll never win an Indianapolis 500 either.

02/18/2008 10:28 PM

The question is , does Tony’s or any drivers legacy hinge on winning the Daytona 500 . The answer is no . And particularly in the case of Earnhardt and Stewart . Their win lists are amazing without the 500 . Dale eventually won his , but would he have been a lesser driver if he never did . Of course not . The same goes for Tony . His wins and championships in many different types of cars define him , with or without a 500 win .
And i can’t think of anyone who seriously thinks that Tony won’t eventually win the Daytona 500 . And probably much sooner than later .

Travis Rassat
02/19/2008 07:31 AM

While I was really hoping that Tony would finally get his Daytona 500 win this year, it was also a fun surprise to see Newman win it. I would’ve never guessed that.

In a bit of a different statistical category, I’d like to see if Tony can win a race at every track on the schedule – if I remember right, he’s only got 3 or 4 tracks that he hasn’t won at yet. I believe Jeff Gordon still has 1 or 2 as well.

As much as a win at Daytona is probably the biggest thing most drivers dream of, I still find it more impressive when somebody can win anywhere.


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