Feb 21, 2014, 7:20 PM EDT
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What should potentially be one of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 hasn’t even registered a blip on the NASCAR media radar this year.
With so much attention focused on Austin Dillon bringing the legendary No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series after a 13-year absence and then putting it on the pole for Sunday’s race, the media seem to have forgotten an almost equally important story.
Tony Stewart will make his 16th consecutive career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, making him third among active drivers with the most starts without a win in the field for the Great American Race.
Terry Labonte, who has announced that Sunday will be his final career start at Daytona, tops the list with 32 starts in the 500 without a win. Brother Bobby will make his 22nd start on Sunday without a win in the big race.
Over the last four or five 500s, Stewart has come into Speedweeks as arguably one of the key focal points of media attention not because of what he’s done, but what he’s not done.
But no one is talking about Stewart’s 0-for-15 record in this year’s edition of Speedweeks.
Stewart comes into Sunday as essentially the Dale Earnhardt of his generation when it comes to Daytona 500 success. After years of frustration, Earnhardt finally won his first – and ultimately only – Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998.
At the same time, Stewart, a winner of 48 career races in 521 starts on the Cup circuit, is somewhat of a paradox.
It’s not that he’s a bad driver at Daytona. In 30 career Cup starts there, he has four wins, but all have come in summer’s Coca Zero 400. Stewart also has nine top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
He also has seven Nationwide Series wins there.
After four top-five and three other top-10 finishes in an eight-year stretch of the 500 from 2002 through 2009 (he also finished a career-worse 43rd in 2007), Stewart has struggled in the last four editions of the Great American Race: 22nd (2010), 13th (2011), 16th (2012) and his second-worst finish in the race, 41st, last season.
“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”
A Daytona 500 win is unquestionably “No. 1″ on his bucket list, Stewart said.
“I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at,” Stewart said, referring again to Le Mans, the Indy 500, etc. “But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”
With Sunday being Stewart’s first official points-paying Cup race since last summer’s wreck in a sprint car race that resulted in a severely broken leg and caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season, a win Sunday would be all the more sweeter.
That’s not to say Stewart hasn’t come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race. He was runner-up in the 2004 race and third in 2002 and 2008.
“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently,” Stewart said. “If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end.
“I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed – I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.
“That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski
Aug 2, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Montoyas 42-point lead over Rahal all but disappears in one race.
Aug 2, 2015, 5:56 PM EDT
Sage Karam in the crosshairs again after controversial Lap 66 spin at Mid-Ohio.
Aug 2, 2015, 4:53 PM EDT
Wilson earns first podium finish since Houston in 2013.
Aug 2, 2015, 4:02 PM EDT
Quick thinking from Rahal’s strategists allows the Ohio native to storm to his second win of the 2015 season and slice the gap to Montoya in the championship race.
Aug 2, 2015, 3:12 PM EDT
Castroneves led at halfway due to off-setting pit strategy.
Aug 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
Alex Lynn has made an impression during his rookie GP2 season, but can he make the step up to F1 in 2016?
Aug 2, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
McLaren’s CEO feels the reasons behind limiting in-season testing offer a “false economy”.
Aug 2, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Watch live from Mid-Ohio ahead of the 14th round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Aug 2, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Latvala wins on home soil for the second time in the WRC with a record-breaking display.
Aug 2, 2015, 11:27 AM EDT
Big drama in second Indy Lights race of the weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Aug 2, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
What to watch for ahead of Round 14 of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Aug 2, 2015, 10:24 AM EDT
Hunter-Reay finishes on top ahead of Helio Castroneves and Jack Hawksworth despite crashing his car.
Aug 2, 2015, 9:35 AM EDT
The Italian Grand Prix looks set to remain at Monza beyond 2016 thanks to a tax-free investment from the Italian government.
Aug 1, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge race updates from Mid-Ohio as they happen on one of the busiest road racing days of the year.
Aug 1, 2015, 6:48 PM EDT
Enerson finally breaks through for overdue first Indy Lights win.
Aug 1, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
Mercedes F1 reserve driver finishes second at the Red Bull Ring to move into the lead of the DTM championship.
Aug 1, 2015, 4:46 PM EDT
In his third career start in the ARCA Racing Series, Cole Custer breezed to victory in Saturday’s ModSpace 125 at Pocono Raceway.
Aug 1, 2015, 4:21 PM EDT
Dixon blisters previous mark for the track record at Mid-Ohio.
Aug 1, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
At 17, Verstappen is still too young to get a road driver’s licence in Belgium.
Aug 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Stefan Johansson, a veteran of over 100 F1 starts, argues the case of customer cars in F1.
- Graham Rahal now trails Montoya by nine points in IndyCar standings 0
- Karam’s Mid-Ohio spin triggers frustration, skepticism from IndyCar paddock 0
- Rahal scores dream win on home soil in Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio 1
- Helio Castroneves leads halfway through the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio 0
- What to watch for: IndyCar at Mid-Ohio (1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC and Live Extra) 0
- Hunter-Reay fastest in final Mid-Ohio warm up despite spinning out 0
- Cole Custer sails to first career ARCA win at Pocono, 9th first-time winner in series in 2015 0