Stewart looking for bit of history
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rarely does a driver have a chance to tie the late Dale Earnhardt in a prized statistical category. Even more rarely does that opportunity come at Daytona International Speedway, where the NASCAR icon won 34 races in various series.
But Tony Stewart's dominance of the Nationwide Series races held on the 2.5-mile superspeedway has been so thorough recently that one of Earnhardt's milestones is very much within reach for the three-time Sprint Cup champion on Saturday.
With a win in the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 Chevrolet, Stewart would have seven victories in the annual Nationwide season opener, tying in 14 starts a mark Earnhardt needed 13 to compile.
Stewart has won at least one Nationwide race at Daytona every year since 2005, except 2007 and last season, when he was a victim of a last-lap crash while drafting toward the front with Elliott Sadler and lost a chance at a fifth straight win in the race.
"It's cool just to be even close to [Earnhardt]," Stewart said. "Whether we ever get another win and catch his mark or even surpass him, that's still a record that's pretty remarkable here at Daytona.
"That's a pretty cool feeling to know we've closed in on something he's done here. To me, this was his playground. You just watched him play with the guys here. He was the best at this place. To even be remotely close to him in the record books, in anything here at Daytona, is very humbling."
Earnhardt's son and namesake -- with three wins each in the season-opening and summer races -- could get there first but has not been nearly as successful as Stewart recently. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won a DIS Nationwide race just twice after winning four straight over parts of 2002, 2003 and 2004. His father had only February races to contest, winning his first and then five straight through his last Nationwide start here in 1994.
One of the more impressive facets of Stewart's run is that he has won with three different organizations: Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Kevin Harvick Inc. His 2005 win in the season opener was his first in NASCAR's second-tier series, but he enters Saturday with 10 wins, 29 top-5s and 40 top-10s in 93 starts. He has led 206 laps at Daytona, accruing seven top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in addition to his six wins.
Stewart conceded that he has had "a lot of luck" at Daytona, but maintaining such a run through myriad teams, cars and draft partners has become a source of pride, he said.
"To do it back-to-back-to-back-to-back is something we're really proud of," Stewart said. "We've won six out of the last eight here, and none of them have been the same. It's been different cars, different teams, different pavement. There wasn't one of the six in that scenario that have been even remotely close to the same."
Winning the Nationwide event at Daytona is made more difficult in that it is often stocked with fellow Cup drivers running either one-off deals or partial schedules in the season's marquee event.
Nine full-time Sprint Cup drivers will contest the event this season, including former Daytona 500 winners Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Kenseth, who is racing an extra car for his new Joe Gibbs Racing team, has a win and seven top-5s and nine top-10s in 11 career Nationwide starts at Daytona.
"I've always liked Nationwide races," Kenseth said. "I'm really looking forward to that. I'm obviously looking into the Sunday stuff the most, but I am looking forward to getting back in the Nationwide Series and racing with some of them guys and seeing if there's something to be learned over there."
While there are things to be learned, success in one series doesn't necessarily translate to the other. The similarities between the elder Earnhardt and Stewart involve what they haven't won -- or struggled to win -- as much as what they have won.
Despite his voluminous accomplishments and mastery of DIS, Earnhardt made 19 starts before winning the Daytona 500 for the first and only time. Stewart will make his 15th attempt to win NASCAR's greatest race on Sunday. A Nationwide victory could be either a precursor to history or, again, a consolation prize.
"The good thing is I'm probably the happiest guy going into the Daytona 500 if we get a win on Saturday," Stewart said. "It shows that we can win, and it's just a matter of whether the cards play out for you on Sunday. It's always a bonus when you can win on Saturday before going into the biggest race of the year on Sunday.
"Getting a Nationwide win there, that's how you like to go to bed the night before the Daytona 500, knowing that you've got that trophy sitting out there on your desk from what you did Saturday afternoon."