Love him or loathe him, Tony Stewart is one of this era's most talented and versatile race car drivers. His accomplishments speak for themselves: two NASCAR Nextel Cup championships, an IRL IndyCar Series title, multiple USAC crowns, and countless Silver Crown, sprint car, and midget victories.
"I've driven 22 types of cars and I've won in 21 of them," said Stewart in a Friday press conference at Daytona International Speedway. "So this is the only one I haven't won in yet. We should have won two years in a row here; just bad luck caught us at the end of it. But getting to within 17 minutes of winning this race, it only makes you want it even more."
But while Stewart really wants to win this race, his dizzying array of commitments means that he has to rely heavily on Wallace and Leitzinger to prepare the trio's Howard Motorsports Pontiac Riley for the twice-around- the-clock event. "My other obligations keep me from being here for the test and for the practice and qualifying sessions, but when you have (Andy and Butch) as teammates it makes it real easy to just come in here and get in the car and feel comfortable right away.
And if you are comfortable, you can go fast. They're the ones who get the car right, I just get to sit in it and have fun and smile while I'm driving.
"I'm the weakest link of the group here, obviously. The years of experience that Andy and Butch have you can't put a price on it. I've got two of the best guys you can hope to have as teammates for a 24-hour race. So hopefully we won't have any problems. We've had the car to beat here numerous times so for sure the driver lineup is more than enough to get the job done, it's just a matter of me holding up my end of the deal and hopefully we'll have a little bit of luck on our side."
Luck plays a role in many long distance races, but fast and consistent drivers are also necessary. And Stewart's pace never ceases to amaze Wallace. "Even with just a few laps, he did a fantastic lap time. But he always does that. So that was no surprise to us. Of course, you need someone who's really fast at this track. Yes you have to be careful, but if you can't actually go fast then you're not very useful either," said Wallace.
A revamped engine program should make Stewart and company faster than they were last year. "Our engine program is better by leaps and bounds than it was last year," explained Leitzinger. "Last year, we were slow on the banking and that was because we didn't have any power. So we trimmed out the car aerodynamically to recover some of that speed and that made us slow in the infield. So we were pretty much slow everywhere. This year, we're really back on track. We have very good engines and we are on par with everyone else. So we're able to run the proper amount of down force and keep the straight-line speed. The team wants this race more than anything else."
So, too, does Stewart, who admitted that he was going to spend the rest of the week praying for good luck this weekend.