Stewart comes from behind for Daytona win

Published 8:01 pm Saturday, February 14, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Not even a wreck in Daytona 500 practice could ruin Tony Stewart’s day. Getting to Victory Lane has a way of making things better.

Just five hours after Stewart stood brooding over his battered Daytona 500 car, he found himself celebrating a second straight season-opening Nationwide Series win at Daytona International Speedway.

“It was very disappointing this morning,” Stewart said after holding off Kyle Busch on the last lap to win the Camping World 300. “It was so frustrating I almost couldn’t see straight.”

The two-time Sprint Cup champion, who left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2008 season to start his own Stewart-Haas Racing operation, had a very good week going until new teammate Ryan Newman’s tire blew Saturday morning, collecting his teammate and boss in the final practice before Sunday’s Great American Race.

Stewart was set to start fifth in the 500. Now, he and Newman must switch to backup cars and start from the rear of the 43-car field.

The wrecks prompted Stewart to criticize Goodyear for bringing a faulty tire to the superspeedway.

“I’m ticked right now. I’m not happy. I’m not cordial. I’m not nice,” Stewart said after practice.

It was temporary.

Stewart said his mood began to improve as he watched his new team quickly prepare the backup cars. As he got ready for the Nationwide race, his first time driving for car owner and longtime friend Rick Hendrick, he shifted his focus.

“When I went back to the bus and put this uniform on and saw Hendrick on it, you switch gears real quick in your mind,” Stewart said. “You realized that, hey, you’ve got a job to do and put what happened this morning behind you and focus on the task at hand.”

He certainly did that, passing 23 cars in 11 laps to get back into contention after pitting with 30 laps to go in the 120-lap event. Then he hung onto the lead as Busch, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer fought for position.

Stewart said it was his decision to pit for tires from third place on lap 91, giving up lots of track position. It turned out to be the key move of the race.

“I thought I made the worst call of the year,” said Stewart, who saw most contenders stay on the track. “It actually ended up saving us at the end, though. We were fortunate we were able to get through the pack like that.”

Brad Keselowski led several times and appeared to be one of the drivers to beat, but he banged off the wall on lap 108. Two laps later, his right rear tire blew, bringing out the last of six caution flags and setting up the dash to the finish.

Edwards led at that point, but Stewart, with help from Chevy driver Bowyer, pushed past into the lead after the restart on lap 114.

As the laps wound down, Stewart seemed to be a sitting duck, especially after Busch, who won 10 Nationwide races last year, moved into second place three laps from the end.

On the final trip around the 2.5-mile oval, Busch moved up to Stewart’s rear bumper and gave him a nudge. Stewart’s car wobbled and drifted high as Busch’s Toyota moved nearly alongside. Somehow, Stewart stayed just ahead of Busch. Then Edwards and defending series champion Bowyer went to the outside to pass Busch.

“What Kyle did was try to get me in a position where my car got loose, and I had to try to race it up the racetrack to give him the bottom,” Stewart said. “And that happened. (But) in doing so, he had to run up the racetrack, too. It wasn’t like he just ran us up into the fence. He didn’t do that.

“Kyle’s the type of guy that if you beat him, in a race like this, if you can win the race, you know you did everything a hundred percent right. Because, if you don’t do it a hundred percent right, he’s going to find a way around you. … I don’t know how we came off the corner ahead of him.”

Busch tried the same maneuver in the Camping World Truck Series opener Friday night, bumping Todd Bodine heading toward the third turn on the last lap. Like Stewart, though, Bodine was able to fend off the challenge and race on to the win as Busch finished second.

Saturday, Busch wound up fourth. He scrambled out of his car and ran to his team’s hauler without talking to the media.

Edwards, who won the Nationwide title two years ago, was surprised to find himself in the runner-up spot at the finish.

“Coming off (turn) four … Clint was right on my bumper and pushed me right by Kyle,” Edwards said. “He gave me like the half inch I needed there. I thought he was going to come out, and I was just going to blow through his right rear bumper.

“I had a little of a run on Tony. He came up and I thought, ‘Man, this is going to be smoke and walls and all that.’ But it ended up he gave me enough room, and I still ended up second. It was an exciting at least half a lap, at least for me.”

Greg Biffle finished fifth, followed by Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and David Ragan, giving Sprint Cup drivers the top eight positions. Nationwide regular Jason Keller was ninth.

Jason Leffler, another Nationwide regular, ignited a four-car crash just past the halfway mark in the race, banging into the rear of Steven Wallace and knocking Wallace sideways. Rookies Scott Lagasse Jr. and Justin Allgaier also were involved.

Leffler said he was just trying to let Wallace back in line, but NASCAR held him in the pits for five laps for aggressive driving.