Stewart sizzles while Danica fizzles
Tony Stewart stole the spotlight from Danica Patrick on Saturday doing what Danica couldn’t – staying out in front and dodging the carnage to win the crash-filled season-opening event for the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Daytona Int’l Speedway for the second year in a row.
Driving a Chevrolet owned by fellow Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick, Stewart held the lead for the final 25 laps, holding off Carl Edwards, Harvick, Justin Allgaier and Brian Vickers to win the season-opening event for the fifth time in the last six races.
All told, Stewart led three times for 38 laps, just one more lap than his car owner, and managed to avoid trouble in a race marred by two multi-car crashed that collected the top two media darlings of the past week – Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The victory was the 15th stockcar victory at Daytona for Stewart, tying him with Cale Yarborough for third on the all-time list behind Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison.
“It makes this even that much more special,” said Stewart of his record-tying victory. “That's probably one of the most dominant cars I've ever had at Daytona.
“We were really, really loose at the beginning, but we just took our time and methodically worked our way into the top-10. Then with pit stops and everything, we got a chance to work on it. We really hit on it there at the end, and I felt confident that I could go wherever I needed to go on the racetrack.”
While Stewart was the focus of attention after the race, in the hours leading up to the event, all eyes were on Patrick, making her NASCAR debut in a car fielded by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s JR Motorsports team.
After being mobbed by media and fans alike during the pre-race festivities, Patrick was tested early and often – having to dodge a wreck on lap eight, stalling the car on pit road during a yellow-flag stop and battling handling problems that put her deep in the field.
Then Patrick’s storybook week came to a crashing end on lap 69, after getting caught up in the event’s first big crash when Josh Wise and Colin Braun got together coming into the front stretch.
Patrick, running 22nd at the time, tried to duck to the low side but ended up clipping the spinning car of Braun, sending her no. 7 Chevy hard into the outside wall.
“That's the tough thing about this racing,” said Patrick. “At these big tracks, when smoke comes up, you're running so close together, there's nowhere to go.
“But the disappointing part, more than anything, is just that I missed out on getting 40 or whatever it was laps left of experience that I could have gotten. And the car was finally where I liked it and I felt confident as a driver. I was finally getting the hang of it.”
The race turned out to be an expensive venture for JR Motorsports as teammate and car owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got caught up in frightening multi-car melee on lap 93.
Running third behind Stewart and Harvick, Earnhardt was clipped in the right-rear as Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards got together, touching off a crash that send Earnhardt sailing down the backstretch on his roof.
The crash eventually tallied ten cars, including Harvick, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, all of who managed to re-join the race despite the damage to their cars.
Earnhardt, Jr. emerged unhurt, but disappointed that his team wound up with two destroyed racecars and nothing to show for it.
“It's good to flip upside down every once in a while, but it's just too expensive for me,” said Earnhardt. “We do our books by the month pretty much, and kind of know where we are financially. We were looking for about $400,000 between now and the end of the season, trying to work that in somehow and find that or cut that somewhere.
“We just knocked ourselves back a few steps.”
The race was red-flagged for 11 minutes while the track was cleared and Stewart, who was leading at the time, brought the field back under green and held off a spirited charge from Allgaier in the final ten laps.
On the final circuit, Allgaier got shuffled to fourth as Edwards and Harvick split the middle to take the second and third spots behind Stewart as they came to the checkered flag.
Besides finishing third, it was the fourth trip to victory lane in the Nationwide Series opener for Harvick – once as a driver and three times as an owner.
“Tony and I talked before the race. I told him if everything went right, I didn't think they could beat both of our cars as good as they were in practice,” said Harvick. “In the race it worked out to be the same way. Best car I've ever had here.
Stewart has now won in three of his last four starts at Daytona, winning in the Sprint Cup Series event last July, but will still be searching for that elusive Daytona 500 victory on Sunday.
“I don't want it to take away from what we did today. Like I said, winning at Daytona, period, is special,” said Stewart. “But, you know, every time we win here, it just makes me that much hungrier to win on Sunday now.
“Doesn't matter what kind of car it is, it's always an honor to win at Daytona. After 15 of 'em now, there's one I haven't won, and that's the Sunday show. I would trade a couple of races, I'd let anybody pick which ones they want to trade out, I'd trade any one of 'em for a Sunday race for sure.”
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