DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 5, 1998) Tony Stewart is about to realize one of his career goals -- to race at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart will test his skills in competition for the first time on the famed high-banked oval driving the No. 44 Shell Oil Pontiac, owned by Joe Gibbs, in the NAPA Auto Parts 300. The season-opening event for the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 14.
"There are a few tracks that, as a driver, you just have to have the opportunity to drive," Stewart said. "Daytona is one of those for me.
"There is a mystique about the place that has made me always want to race there. Now Joe Gibbs Racing and Shell Oil have given me the chance to achieve that goal. I am excited about unloading to race at Daytona and I am looking forward to my first Speedweeks."
Team owner Gibbs is cautiously optimistic, but realistic about Stewart's Speedweeks debut. "When you think about it, Tony has had hardly any experience at Daytona," Gibbs said. "His first time on the track was at the first Winston Cup test in January. He went back for the Busch test but it got rained out so the team moved to Talladega. It's just going to be a matter of how fast he comes along and how he feels during Speedweeks.
"He has been chosen to run in the IROC (International Race of Champions) Series as the IRL (Indy Racing League) champion, so, now he will have that race at Daytona as well," Gibbs said. "I think it will be an exciting week for Tony and for us. We are just looking to give him the best car we can so he can qualify well and be very competitive."
A record number of entries are expected in Daytona for the first of 31 events on 1998 NASCAR Busch Series schedule heightening the potential pressure for teams and drivers. Stewart sees the Daytona challenge as a great opportunity to set the tone for the remainder of the season.
"If we can leave Daytona with a solid finish, it will be a great way to start the season," Stewart said. "I am very lucky because Bryant Frazier, my crew chief, and my team have experience at Daytona. I believe that will help me get up to speed more quickly. With all of the testing we have done this winter plus the races we ran last year, we have developed a strong communication style. Now, it is a matter of how quickly I can get comfortable with the track.
"Of course, Daytona is a little different. There is more pressure because it is the first race of the year and it is such a big event. Even people who don't know a lot about NASCAR racing know about Daytona because of the attention it gets. It could be a little intimidating if you let it." Gibbs echoes Stewart's thoughts. He believes the tradition of Daytona is an important part of NASCAR.
"It is certainly unique to have the first event of the season be one of the biggest, if not the biggest," Gibbs said. "It has been a major NASCAR tradition. To be truthful, we probably put twice as much effort in this race as we do many of the others because it is such a big event. Daytona is the crown jewel of NASCAR. For all of these reasons, I wouldn't want to change it. I think it is important to NASCAR, our sponsors and the fans."
Stewart knows there will only be one "first time" at Daytona. Coupled with the excitement of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration, there is a special significance to this year's race. A good run for the Shell Pontiac is upper most in Stewart's mind.
"I am totally focused on our goals for Daytona," Stewart said. "We need to qualify well to ensure a good starting spot. Then we need to race smart to bring home a strong finish for Shell and Joe Gibbs Racing. It would mean a lot to all of us to have a great run in our first race as a team at Daytona."
Source: NASCAR ONline