But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it _ it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win _ and Tony Stewart, Patrick’s teammate and car owner, goes into Sunday’s race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.
He’s been quiet all week, except, of course, for the nine-car accident he started in an exhibition race last weekend. He lamented afterward, “That is why I haven’t won a Daytona 500 yet. I’m not quite sure exactly which move to make.”
Don’t be fooled, though, by the three-time NASCAR champion. Stewart might just like being out of the spotlight as he heads into one of the few races missing from his resume, and being the favorite for the 500 has never worked out for him before.
He wrapped up his practice with one final run Friday to test his race engine and wound up on top of the speed chart. It was Stewart’s intention to sit out Saturday’s final day of practice.
“I’m excited we’ve made it through the whole week without a scratch on the car,” he said. “We are as ready as you can get for the 500. I feel like we’ve got a car capable of winning the race. It’s just a matter of whether the driver does a good job with the steering wheel.”
The title of favorite this year goes to Kevin Harvick, who has two wins in two races so far at Speedweeks. The driver has dominated in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, led 63 of a possible 135 laps and didn’t even bother to take the cover off his car in Friday’s two practice sessions.
Harvick, the 2007 race winner, has come into the year with both focus and some inner peace after a pair of life-changing moments. His first child, son Keelan, was born after last July’s race at Daytona. Then, in November, Harvick made the difficult decision to leave RCR after his 13th season with the organization that brought him into NASCAR and gave him his Cup ride the week after Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“Everybody is just working toward the same goal, that’s winning the races,” Harvick said. “We have to be professional anyway, whether it’s lame duck or not. You can call it whatever you want. We’re going to have a helluva lot of fun racing, having a good time, doing our jobs.”
The 500 will be the first with a full 43-car field racing NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, which was designed all last season with input from teams, drivers and the manufacturers.
Part of the intent was to design a car that more closely resembled what the automakers sell in the showrooms, and NASCAR succeeded in that area. But NASCAR also needed a car that produced better on-track racing, and the verdict is not in yet.
There are a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 heading into Sunday, partly because drivers spent Speedweeks learning as much as they can about how it handles on the track. All three races so far have been largely uneventful, resembling something closer to a long parade rather than a high-speed spectacle.
If not for Kyle Busch’s win in a Toyota in the second of Thursday’s twin qualifying races, it would so far be a Chevrolet rout with Harvick taking the new SS to Victory Lane twice and Patrick winning the pole in her Chevy.
All bets could be off on Sunday, Busch warned.
“It might be we all ran single file because we were scared to run side-by-side,” Busch said after Thursday’s win. “I don’t know. I was ready to put on a show, but I didn’t have enough people around me to make one happen.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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