Tony Stewart wanted to end Daytona (Fla.) Speedweeks much like he started it. After scoring back-to-back wins in the two non-point races held at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway -- the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel --...
Tony Stewart wanted to end Daytona (Fla.) Speedweeks much like he started it. After scoring back-to-back wins in the two non-point races held at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway -- the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel -- Stewart was intent on capping the week with a victory in the Daytona 500, thereby becoming the only driver to ever sweep all three Nextel Cup events held during Daytona Speedweeks.
But after leading twice for 35 laps, including laps 150-152 when Stewart paced Kurt Busch around the 2.5-mile oval, a nudge from the nose of Busch's Dodge into the left rear bumper of Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet sent Stewart hard into the turn four wall. Stewart emerged from his mangled race car unscathed, as did Busch, who also smacked the turn four wall after his contact with Stewart. However potent Stewart's run had been, it ended with a 43rd-place finish, 50 laps off the pace.
"I'm okay," said Stewart after being evaluated in the infield care center. "Not completely sure what happened out there. All of a sudden it took off on me."
Stewart's drive was as impressive as it was strong. After leading 32 of the race's first 80 laps, Stewart dropped back to 40th after making a secondary pit stop on lap 82 to complement the scheduled pit stop he had made a lap earlier. That pit stop came under a caution for debris, as a cut right rear tire on Kyle Petty's Dodge shredded his quarterpanel, leaving chunks of sheet metal all over the race track. Stewart had run through a lot of the shrapnel left from the Petty machine, and with plenty of laps left in the race and a dominant car to care for, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli opted to come down pit road and look the car over for damage, mainly to the front valance and undercarriage. With a clean bill of health, the Home Depot Chevrolet rejoined the field, albeit deep in the pack.
"I was really proud of how we got back to the front," said Stewart. "It took a little longer than I anticipated. The car was just so tight back there. It was hard to drive back there without clean air.
"If you're up front, it's not too bad. But if you get in the back, the tire is so hard and the air is so dirty, it's hard. I wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. You just get back there and your car is wicked tight. But I never got worked up and we just drove our way back to the front."
After restarting the race in 40th on lap 80, Stewart methodically worked the draft to climb back into the top-three by lap 142. Leading at that time was Kurt Busch, while his younger brother Kyle served as a buffer between Stewart and first-place.
On lap 147, Stewart passed Kyle for second on the outside of turn four with a helpful push from fellow Chevrolet driver Martin Truex, Jr. That momentum allowed Stewart to get alongside Kurt, with Stewart wrestling the lead from him on lap 149 as the duo raced off turn two. Three laps later, both drivers were in the wall, each of their races over.
"I'm still excited about our season," said an upbeat Stewart, reminiscent of his nature following the 2002 Daytona 500, where he finished 43rd after an engine failure on just the second lap, but rallied back to claim his first Nextel Cup championship at Homestead (Fla.) nine months later. "The guys on this Home Depot team have done such a good job all week. I'm just proud of everybody at The Home Depot, all 350,000 associates that were rooting for us today. We'll just come back next year and get one.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed right now, but when we look back a week or two from now -- to win two races this week is a pretty strong week. We had an awesome Speedweeks. We had two of the three days go absolutely perfect, so this is the only one that didn't go right."
Stewart's JGR teammates -- J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin -- finished 12th and 28th, respectively, in the season-opening race. As a result, Yeley is 12th in points while Hamlin is 28th. Stewart is 41st in points.
Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 to score his 11th career Nextel Cup victory and his first at Daytona. Mark Martin finished second by .020 of a second, while Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton finished third. Mike Wallace and rookie David Ragan rounded out the top-five. Elliott Sadler, Kasey Kahne, pole-sitter David Gilliland, Joe Nemechek and Jeff Gordon comprised the remainder of the top-10.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the Feb. 25 Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana. The race begins at 3:30 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by FOX.