Strong start for Stewart in 2004; second-place finish in Daytona 500 puts gormer champion cecond in points. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 15, 2004) - The only other time Tony Stewart was ever satisfied with a second-place finish was on Oct. 6,...
Strong start for Stewart in 2004; second-place finish in Daytona 500 puts gormer champion cecond in points.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 15, 2004) - The only other time Tony Stewart was ever satisfied with a second-place finish was on Oct. 6, 2002, when his runner-up effort to Dale Earnhardt Jr., at Talladega (Ala.) vaulted him into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point lead, and eventually, the championship.
In Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season opener - the Daytona 500 - Stewart finished second for a career-best, point-paying result at Daytona. Crossing the stripe ahead of Stewart was none other than Earnhardt, who scored his first Daytona 500 victory in the very same race that took the life of his father three years ago.
"I'm happy about the day we had," said Stewart, who led seven times for a race-high 97 laps. "Considering what that kid (Earnhardt) went through in losing his father here at the Daytona 500 and knowing how good he's been here, it's nice to see him get his victory here, too."
Earnhardt has now won eight races at Daytona, and Stewart has found that the best way around the 2.5-mile oval is behind the guy who wins there the most.
"Dale Jr. was the class of the field all week," said Stewart. "There wasn't going to be any stopping him. It was just a matter of time. Late in the race with about 30 laps to go, I saw him moving around. I knew it was coming, I just didn't know where. When he decided he was ready to go, he went. I'm not ashamed at all to finish second. I'm just flat tickled to death."
Stewart drove his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo from fifth in the 43-car field to first by lap 36. He never fell out of the top-five except during the cycles of green flag pit stops. And when the pit stops did cycle through, Stewart was either leading or challenging for the lead.
"Tires made the difference," said Stewart, a nod to the softer compound Goodyear engineers had developed for 2004. "Guys had to drive their cars. You couldn't just hold it wide-open all day long and go for any hole you could find. If you got into the corner and you couldn't make your car turn, it didn't matter how fast you were going at the end of the straightaway. It put the driver back into it. We may not have had 20 guys go across the line within five-tenths of a second of each other, but who cares? Guys got to race today, and that's what this whole race is about."
Adding to Stewart's enthusiasm was his team's renaissance during the 10-day Daytona Speedweeks. The #20 Home Depot Chevrolet could muster only the 37th fastest time during last Sunday's time trials, and in the following practice sessions leading up to Thursday's Gatorade Twins 125s, it was only moderately quicker. But what the team couldn't find underneath the hood they made up for with an extremely well-handling chassis. That proved evident in Stewart's 125, when he drove from 19th to second on the back bumper of - who else? - Earnhardt.
"Since the 125s, (head engine builder) Mark Cronquist and all the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing's engine department were busting their tails trying to find extra speed, extra power for us. Sure enough, everything came our way," said Stewart. "We had a couple of things we wanted to try Saturday in final practice, but John Andretti tried to wreck us for the second straight day and it tore our car up. But it just showed how dedicated this Home Depot team is. They did such a good job in replacing suspension pieces and rear-end houses - and that always makes a driver nervous when so many things are being changed right before a race. But in the race, we never had to make any changes. Two or three-tenths of a pound of air pressure out of the right front tire was all I asked for all day. It was just a matter of keeping Dale Earnhardt Jr., and I together. When we were together, nobody could do anything with us."
Earnhardt and Stewart's one-two finish put the duo one-two in the Nextel Cup championship point standings - the best start to a season either driver has ever enjoyed. Earnhardt leaves Daytona with 185 points, while Stewart is just five markers arrears with 180 points.
The finishing order of the race reflects the top-five in points, with rookie Scott Wimmer in third, Kevin Harvick in fourth and Jimmie Johnson in fifth.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the Feb. 22 Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.