KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – After 18 years of full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, three-time champion Tony Stewart makes his final appearance at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway when he’ll drive the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Ducks Unlimited Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.
Saturday night’s race comes just six days after Stewart’s last-corner pass Sunday afternoon at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway to capture his 49th career victory that broke an 84-race winless drought. The victory was a big step toward securing a berth for his No. 14 team in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Few drivers have enjoyed the success the 45-year-old Stewart has on the 2.5-mile high-banked, restrictor-plate track.
Between points-paying Sprint Cup races, non-points races, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the former IROC series, Stewart has a total of 19 Daytona wins. The tally places Stewart second on the track’s all-time win list, 15 behind the late, great Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and was part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.
Stewart says one of his most memorable moments at Daytona came racing Earnhardt in 2001.
“I still think the first Shootout that I won by outrunning Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. is what I am most proud of,” Stewart said. “Dale Sr. ran second to us. Just knowing that you were able to outrace the best racecar driver that has ever been to Daytona International Speedway, that is something I have always been extremely proud of. He knows every trick in the book and threw every one of them at us. We were able to hold him off and make it work for us.”
Stewart is a four-time Sprint Cup winner at Daytona, having scored victories in the annual Fourth of July-weekend race in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012 – the most among active drivers. Augmenting those four wins are nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and 668 laps led in 34 career, points-paying Daytona starts.
Stewart arrives at Daytona with a reinvigorated focus on the future buoyed by recent success. He qualified sixth and ran in the top-10 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway three weekends ago. The following weekend, he qualified third and finished seventh at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. On the road course Sunday at Sonoma, he started 10th and led the final 22 laps that saw him lose, then regain, the lead on the final lap.
It was crew chief Mike Bugarewicz’s call to pit Stewart seconds before a caution that propelled him from midpack into the lead. Stewart said decisions like that are turning the No. 14 into a contender.
“I told my team, I think we’re gaining on it,” Stewart said. “I think it’s a scenario where you crawl before the walk, you walk before you jog, jog before you run, run before you sprint. It’s phases that we’re going through. I felt like, Michigan and Pocono, we got jogging and we’re getting closer to being where we need to be. We’re not there, yet, but we’ve still got time to get there and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time and, if we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows?”
Because he missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 Chase. After securing the victory last week, Stewart will have to race his way in by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into this weekend, Brian Scott is 30th with 205 points while Stewart is 32nd with 196 points.
This weekend isn’t going to be a sentimental review of the past or a celebration of last week’s victory. Stewart says he has a lot of racing to do, especially considering the volatile nature of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona, to earn a Chase berth.
“We’ve still got work to do at Daytona,” Stewart said. “We’re nine (points) out, right now. We can be 39 out by the time we leave Daytona, so there’s a lot that can happen, still.”
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Ducks Unlimited Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your thoughts on the Sonoma victory and season to date?
“I’m excited for (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) to get his first win and proud that I could get him a win before the end of the year. Excited for this team. My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down. They’ve never quit on me. There are days I’ve quit on myself and they’re the guys who send you text messages and call you when you get home like, ‘Hey, this isn’t over.’ I’m proud for them and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself. I guess the one thing that I did think about is, in this day of social media where everybody is a cricket, a lot of people are crickets. On social media, they sit there and chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp until they’ve got to be in front of you, and then they don’t say a damned word. And, listening to people say I’m old and washed up. I know how old I am, I know I haven’t run well for the last three years, but I’ve felt like, if we got things right, that it was still there. And like I was telling Don Hawk after the race, we had a restart with 14 laps to go on an 11-turn track and I missed three corners. I don’t know how many corners that is, doing the math, but it’s, what, 160 corners, 150 some-odd corners, and I screwed up three of them, and the rest of the time I felt like I was the Tony Stewart who has won there and led laps there in the past.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to myself. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m still happy about my (retirement) decision to make the change I’m making next year. Jeff (Gordon) set the bar pretty high last year, winning a race in the clutch to get to the last race at Homestead, just to be able to be in the Chase. But I’m proud of where we are. For two guys, for a brand new crew chief and driver combination, we didn’t get a chance to work with each other until the ninth or 10th race, I feel like we’re gaining ground here, and I’m proud of those guys. I’m really proud of what they’re doing.”
What are your thoughts on your final Daytona race?
“Daytona is a pretty special place to every racer. It’s been a good place for us and I’m honored that I could be part of its history. I’m proud of what we have done there. I can’t think of anything better than to win Saturday night. As much as you want to go win that thing, it’s crisis management more than anything, I think, because if we can get through that, I feel like our performance is good enough to get us the rest of the way there. We’ve just got to take care of ourselves to get through there.”
How does the July Daytona race differ from February’s Daytona 500?
“The thing about the July race is it is so much warmer when you get down there. The track is hot, so handling is more important. It seems like, when you are there in February, everybody has an even shot at it. In July, it separates the good cars and teams from the rest of the field because handling is so much more of a premium. In February, it is more of a chess match and, in July, while it’s still a chess match, handling becomes such a big factor.”
Why are you retiring from Sprint Cup racing?
“I’m just ready to do different things. This is a grueling schedule. Anybody who thinks this is an easy job is fooling themselves. There are still people who literally think all we do is show up on Friday and race through Sunday and we have four days off during the week. And I can promise you my role with Stewart‑Haas is much deeper than that. Even the wintertime is – the wintertime is actually our busiest time at the shop. It’s a 12‑month‑a‑year job. I still love what I do, I still love the sport. That’s why I’m excited to be an owner in this series – because I get to do everything I’m doing, not just driving the car. So that part gives me enough flexibility to do some of the other things that I want to do. It’s just the right time for us. I mean, we started thinking about this four or five years ago, of starting to plan for the future.”
Are there non-racing things you want to do?
“Yeah, I’m just not sure what they all are, yet. That is the thing. When you have raced for 38 years, that is all you know, it’s all you think about, that is all you dream about. When you wake up, you are thinking about it. While you are eating breakfast, that is all you do. I just can’t imagine that there is not more to life than this. I know there is. I know people who talk about it all the time. I’ve got friends like Don Prudhomme and Ray Evernham and guys who are already retired who talk about how much fun they are having. I’m like, man that sounds like a good time to me.”
Would you consider returning to Daytona for the Rolex 24?
“Could be, yeah. That’s one on my list that I think I’d still like to do. You go back with the right team – I definitely would not be in the lead driver’s spot. I’d probably be in the last spot, but that would be a great opportunity, and that’s something definitely on my list of things I want to do again.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine