Just in case anyone was wondering, Tony Stewart served notice that it might be a tough order to knock the defending Sprint Cup champion off his perch.
With the season ready to begin, Stewart already has a second and a win in two of the three pre-Daytona 500 events that set up the series' marquee event. And the only reason the Stewart-Haas Racing owner-driver didn't make it three top finishes is because he wasn't in the third race.
“It's good momentum for the crew, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year,” said the three-time NASCAR champ, after he won the first of two Gatorade Duel qualifying races on Thursday to go along with a second in the Budweiser Shootout last weekend.
“It gives you confidence going into [the Daytona 500 on]Sunday. Even though we had success today, it's no guarantee that can happen Sunday. I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed.”
The Duel win means Stewart starts third in the Daytona 500 behind the Roush Fenway pair of 2011 Cup runner-up Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, who qualified on the front row in time trials last Sunday.
Stewart goes into 2012 coming off a spectacular run at the end of last year, when he won half of the 10 Chase for the Cup races that decide the season champion. And he'd love to keep it going on Sunday, when he will try to win his first Daytona 500 in 14 starts since he joined the series in 1999.
“There's just something magical about Daytona,” he said.
“When it's the most important race of your season, especially the first one, all the drivers and all the teams and all the crews put more pressure on themselves for that one race than they do anywhere else the rest of the year. You have to get every little ounce of performance that you can get out of these cars. So, you know, it puts a lot of pressure into what it takes to win this race.”
That said, Stewart seems to still have that extra gear in his car that powered him to the title last season. In a great example of how to deliver results when they count the most, Stewart limped into the 10-race Chase for the Cup showdown after a disappointing year. He had no wins in the first 26 races and mused as the Chase approached that he didn't feel he deserved to be one of the 12 guys vying for the title.
But once it began, Stewart caught fire, winning the first two Chase races and then taking the chequered flag in three of the final four to seal Cup title No. 3.
One NASCAR driver who didn't want to be named gave a succinct description of what the 42 other competitors are up against as Stewart defends his crown.
“Tony Stewart may not be in the best shape down here,” he said circling his hands in front of his torso before tapping his finger on his temple and adding: “But he's in great shape up here.”
Stewart might need all his wits about him to deal with the distraction of having media darling Danica Patrick driving one of his team's cars at Daytona. Patrick left IndyCar to join the stock racing world full-time this year and already has the media centre buzzing. The first question Stewart was asked by reporters in the press conference following his Duel race win concerned Patrick's final lap crash.
With a return to pack racing on the 2.5-mile Florida superspeedway, Stewart will likely need to rely on his smarts to keep his car in the game to challenge for his elusive maiden Daytona 500 win. NASCAR made several changes to the cars for Sunday's race to put an end to the tandem drafting that marked last year's season opener.
The tight pack racing that it encourages means that one small error could wipe out a big chunk of the field. If the two Gatorade Duel races are any indication, the Daytona 500 winner will need one part speed and one part survival, with a dash of luck thrown in for good measure.
Early indications suggest that Stewart's biggest challenge for the Daytona win will come from the Roush Fords of Edwards, Biffle, and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who won Thursday's second Duel race.
And after a victory one of the qualifying races on Thursday, what will be the key to transforming Duel success into Daytona glory?
“I think the guys that get impatient are the guys that will get in trouble, and the guys that are smart will race smart – I think that's typically what it comes down to here anyway,” Stewart said.
“Five hundred miles at a superspeedway is a long, long, long race. You just got to race the race, you know, be careful of who you're around, knowing when to push, knowing when to ride, and take care of it.”
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