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Stewart Following The Path Of Earnhardt Sr.

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
Tony Stewart found Victory Lane, again, at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Tony Stewart found Victory Lane, again, at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Shades of the late, great Dale Earnhardt.

Tony Stewart knows how to win everything at Daytona International Speedway except the big one – the Daytona 500.

Smoke did it again Saturday, holding off fellow Sprint Cup stars Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, along with Nationwide Series regular Justin Allgaier to win the opener of the second-tier NASCAR series for the third time in a row and the fifth time in the last six years.

It was also Stewart’s 15th victory at Daytona, including three in the July Cup race, two in the 150-mile qualifying races for the 500, three in the Budweiser Shootout and two in the all-star IROC series.

That ties him for third on the all-time Daytona victory list with Cale Yarborough, trailing only Bobby Allison with 16 and Earnhardt, who won an amazing 34 times here.

“When you put it that way, that just makes it even more a little special,’’ Stewart said when the numbers were revealed in the media center during his post-race interview.

Now, all the two-time Cup champion has to do to gain some real satisfaction is win the big show, the 500, a race that Earnhardt didn’t win until his 20th try. Stewart, like Earnhardt, has come close, finishing second in 2004 and third in 2008. But he’s 0 for 11 heading into Sunday’s race.

“Doesn’t matter what kind of car it is, it’s always an honor to win at Daytona,’’ Stewart said. “After 15 of ‘em now, there’s one I haven’t won, and that’s the Sunday show.  So, you know, 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.’’

He’ll get another chance in less than 24 hours.

Looking ahead to Sunday, Stewart said, “I’ll be honest, I really don’t know what to expect. I mean, I assume it’s going to be something similar to the qualifying races. But, you know, with having the full field, obviously you’re gonna have a lot more good quality cars that are right.

“I think guys from the practice session that I saw this morning and was in, there were guys that struggled a little bit in the qualifying races that made gains. I feel like we made gains, too.  … I’m not sure we got all of it.  … I wasn’t satisfied with my car when we got done. I didn’t feel we had a perfect race car. I didn’t see too many guys park their cars early today. That tells me that everybody is still working on them, too.’’

If Saturday’s Driver4COPD 300 is any indication, the Sprint Cup opener could be a wild one.

There were seven cautions for a total of 32 laps and three big multi-car crashes that took out several of the big names, including teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, making her NASCAR debut in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Patrick was the focal point of the race for many, certainly the biggest name of the day for ESPN.

The IndyCar star barely avoided one of the big crashes early in the race, but got caught up in a 10-car crash on lap 68 that ended her day, relegating her to a 35th-place finish.

But the upbeat Patrick talked about the race as a learning experience.

“I can tell that I’ll be a lot more confident and prepared for next year (at Daytona),’’ she said. “This is some difficult racing, it really is. The cars are definitely on the edge here and, as you can see, someone gets a little bit out of shape and everybody’s on top of each other and then, since the car doesn’t slow down very well, you’re already on the edge and everything happens.’’

Her boss, Dale Jr., learned the same lessons a long time ago. But it didn’t help him avoid a scary crash on Saturday.

His No. 88 Chevy was tapped from behind on lap 91 after Edwards and Brad Keselowski collided . Earnhardt’s car went airborne, hit the wall and rolled. It landed back on its wheel and the battered hulk slid into the infield grass.

Earnhardt, who led seven laps and appeared to have one of the fastest cars on the track, walked away without injury and in good enough spirits to joke around.

“You don’t want to flip one upside down and it not be spectacular,’’ Junior said. “You don’t want to waste your opportunity, right?’’

Sunday will also be a big day for Earnhardt, who starts alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin on the front row. Coming off a miserable, winless year, Earnhardt is looking to regain the magic touch he had for years at Daytona.

“It’s no secret we need to get off to a decent start this season,’’ Earnhardt said. “It would mean a lot to me and to the whole team because everybody has worked so hard to be ready for what’s coming.’’

Stewart, driving a Kevin Harvick Inc., Chevrolet, led 38 laps, one more than Harvick. More important, he led the final four trips around the 2.5-mile oval, holding off Edwards by 0.309-seconds.

Now the onetime IndyCar Series champion turns his attention to the biggest race of the season.

“Man, considering the fact that I’m probably not going to run the Indy 500 ever again, this is now the top priority and agenda,’’ Stewart said. “You know, it’s cool when you win 15 times here in so many different things. But you come down here for one main goal, and that’s to win on Sunday.  That’s what everybody’s shooting for.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
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