Where there is smoke, there is fire. And when you look for drivers who can catch fire (not literally – Juan Pablo Montoya is no longer in NASCAR) at Daytona International Speedway in the summer, look no further than the driver they call “Smoke” – Tony Stewart.
This weekend in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Stewart will not only be looking for his fifth win in the Daytona summer race, but also for his first win this season – something that would help him in his pursuit to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is looking to make the Chase this season after missing it in 2013 following a broken right tibia and fibula sustained in a sprint car race in Iowa that forced Stewart to miss the season’s final 15 races.
While Stewart has never won the Daytona 500, he has had his success at Daytona once the weather heats up. The 43-year-old driver has four wins in the July race at Daytona, including a trip to victory lane in 2012. He also won the race in 2005, 2006 and 2009. Last season, he finished second in the July race at Daytona to Jimmie Johnson.
It has been a grind for Stewart in this so far winless season, as he has compiled just two top-5 finishes and five top-10s in the first 17 races and sits 16th in the points standings. Unfortunately, he would actually be 18th if the Chase standings were reset due to Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch picking up wins despite being below Stewart in points. Without a win, Stewart would need to pick up 13 points on Clint Bowyer and would also need to pass Kasey Kahne, whom he trails by just five points.
Stewart’s 2014 season started with a 35th-place finish in the Daytona 500 – his first Sprint Cup race since last August 4th. The best stretch so far was in the fourth and fifth races, when he finished fourth at Bristol and fifth at Fontana for his only two top-5s to this point. He had actually gotten himself to 12th in points after eight races, but fell to 22nd after a 20th-place finish at Kansas and stayed there with a 13th-place finish at Charlotte.
But then a funny thing – and perhaps a coincidental thing – happened. Tony Stewart got back into a sprint car on May 30th for a test session. You know – one of those when you fall off the horse, get right back on sort of things. One has to believe that the thoughts of that August wreck had to still be in the back of Stewart’s mind early in this season and that having the chance to get back behind the wheel of a sprint cup had to have brought him some closure. In the five races since that test run, Stewart has finished 7-13-11-19-11 and has gained six spots in the standings.
The recent results plus his history at Daytona just might be the perfect storm for Stewart this weekend.
Stewart has led the most laps of any active driver at Daytona with 665 laps led and has the fourth-best driver rating at the track with a 90.0 rating, trailing just Kyle Busch (97.0), Matt Kenseth (92.9) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr (92.0). Only David Pearson has won the July race at Daytona more times (five) than Stewart’s four, which ties Stewart with Cale Yarborough. Of course, Pearson’s last win in the race was in 1978, while Yarborough’s was 1981. Among active drivers, only Jeff Gordon has won the race multiple times, with three wins – the last one coming in 2004.
The injury wasn’t the only thing Stewart has had to deal with in 2014, however. The team he co-owns with Gene Haas – Stewart-Haas Racing – has undergone a facelift since 2013. Gone is Ryan Newman, while the team welcomed two new drivers this season with the addition of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. As if that wasn’t enough, Stewart got a new crew chief, as Steve Addington was replaced by Chad Johnston.
With changes like that made not just to the car that Stewart drives, but also to others that he owns, it is logical that all of that plus the lingering effects of his injury would have produced a slow start. But it seems as if the team – and Stewart – have started to gain some momentum.
Add it all up and when the fireworks are done and the smoke clears on Saturday night, it very well could be Tony Stewart standing in victory lane again. On two healthy legs.