He’s back in the spotlight this year, just not the way he’s been in the past.
Stewart has so far been overshadowed by Danica Patrick, who drove a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to the pole in qualifying for the Daytona 500. It’s made Patrick, not Stewart, the star so far at Daytona.
As Patrick’s car owner, Stewart is just fine with that.
“I’ll be honest, the pole didn’t matter to me personally,” Stewart said after Patrick qualified first for Sunday’s season-opening race. “It was more as an owner, wanting Danica to be in the top two.”
He got his wish, with Patrick locking herself into the field with the fastest lap of last Sunday’s qualifying session. It was an all-around stellar qualifying session for SHR, which also had Ryan Newman post the fourth fastest time and Stewart one spot behind in fifth.
It was a demonstration of offseason preparation for a team that spent the winter not only readying for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, but also running three Sprint Cup cars this season with the full-time addition of Patrick.
“This was probably one of the most difficult winters that I can remember from my 15 years of going through offseasons here for teams to actually get prepared to come down here to Daytona,” Stewart said. “To have three cars in the top five like that, just really, really appreciative and excited that we were able to bring three consistent cars down like this.”
Stewart can bask in his role as owner only until Thursday, when it will be time for him to start focusing on the Daytona 500. It was in the back of his mind after qualifying last Sunday, when he was proud of Patrick and the SHR organization but knew what was ahead for him as a driver.
“To me, my eye is still on next Sunday. Ownership side this Sunday, next Sunday I want it from the driver’s side,” he said.
There’s no questioning how bad Stewart wants the win.
Despite three Cup championships, 47 career wins in NASCAR’s top series and a record that proves he’s as one of the most talented and versatile drivers in the world, Stewart has several glaring holes on his resume and one of them is the Daytona 500.
In 17 seasons spanning NASCAR and IndyCar, Stewart has been able to cross most everything off his to-do list. But he has fallen short 14 times in the Daytona 500. He’s won 18 career races at Daytona _ four in the July Cup race _ but never in the biggest race of them all.
Coincidentally, he’s also never won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the Southern 500 at Darlington or his beloved Indianapolis 500. He turned down an offer from Roger Penske in December to return to the Indy 500 in a Penske car this season after an 11-year absence from the race he was obsessed with as a child.
It’s because his commitment must be on his NASCAR organization, must be on his No. 14 Chevrolet, and right now the task is to finally grab a Daytona 500 victory. He was reminded of how close he’s come while watching a recent special on SPEED about drivers who have failed to win the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule.