Come Monday morning, Tony Stewart might well be lobbying NASCAR to change the mileage of the Coca-Cola 600.
For if it were the Coca-Cola 595… Stewart would have won.
Up to that point, the veteran of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable had played his poker hand to perfection. Struggling during the first 300 miles, Stewart spent most of the race’s first half mired in 20th place. But as a veteran team and driver know, it’s not how you handle at the start of this 400-lap marathon; it’s how you handle at the finish, once the sun goes down and nighttime shines on the 1.5-mile oval.
And shine Stewart did once darkness descended on the speedway. Coming to life, he watched from afar as contender after contender fell by the wayside. Brian Vickers led early, then lost a left-rear tire and destroyed his Toyota. Teammate Kyle Busch battled alternator problems, while brother Kurt Busch saw an early run go sour after plastering the outside wall. That allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take control… until he smacked the wall with a faulty right rear.
Their carnage continued well into the final 100 laps; and by that point, Stewart was ready to assert himself. Taking the lead for the first time following Junior’s mishap, the No. 20 car was out front for 23 of the final 103 laps of the race. And while friend and fellow contender Kasey Kahne also had his car dialed in, it was Stewart who was better over the course of a long run. Following a flawless pit stop for fuel, the Home Depot Toyota had itself a five-and-a-half second lead with three laps left, poised to pounce on the early season momentum Joe Gibbs Racing has established – through his two other teammates.
Too bad Stewart’s Goodyear Eagles had other plans.
“We got a flat – another tire that wouldn’t hold air,” said crew chief Greg Zipadelli of the late-race nightmare. “It’s just stupid. We must have run something over, or had a small leak.”
Whatever it was, Stewart went from certain victor to innocent victim in the matter of a few short minutes. While Kahne streaked by – ending his 52-race winless streak en route to victory lane – Stewart has a streak of his own that remains intact. It’s now 25 races since Stewart took the checkered flag first in the Cup Series, his longest drought in slightly over three years.
“We are a team that has run good most of the year, and haven’t capitalized on it due to circumstances like this and other situations,” said Zipadelli, filling in for his driver as he vented his frustration elsewhere. “I’m so frustrated.”
And he should be; for while there’s no question Stewart is one of the most successful NASCAR drivers of his era, he’s fallen prey to bad luck when it comes to the series’ biggest races. If the old Winston Million were still in play, here’s a stat that might surprise you: Stewart would be an 0-for in each of those four races (for the newer fans, former series sponsor Winston would offer a $1 million bonus to anyone who could win three of these four – the Daytona 500, spring race at Talladega, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 at Darlington – in the same year). Stewart’s struggles at the Daytona 500 are well documented; but he’s also failed to win at Darlington and Talladega during his career, along with falling short in 10 Coca-Cola 600s. It’s not like Stewart hasn’t had his chances in any of these events; it’s just that when he does, putting himself in position to win becomes paired with a litany of bad luck.
How this streak will affect Stewart as spring heads into summer remains to be seen. After all, June, July, and August is typically when the No. 20 team hits its stride. But while teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin continue to run circles around their competition, the opportunities to sneak a victory in have become fewer and farther between. And should Stewart make his move to go elsewhere for 2009 – which appears to be a few weeks away – it’ll be a distraction that’ll make contending for wins that much more difficult.
All of which made tonight a very important race for Stewart to capitalize on. Instead, it’ll be a very important race for the team to put behind them – and quickly – with the difference between them and 13th-place David Ragan just a scant 113 points.
“We knew what we needed,” finished off Zipadelli. “We just fell short.”
And it just goes to show that even in the series’ longest race, every one of its 600 miles is important.