February 22, 2013

Is this the year Tony Stewart finally wins at Daytona?

He appears to have put together the best team with the fastest cars.

Tony Stewart feels so good, he doesn’t know how to feel.

One of his cars is on the pole for the Daytona 500, put there by the first woman in NASCAR history to do it, and his own car is so ready to race, he’s going to skip the last practice — nearly unthinkable for a vehicle perfectionist like him.

Plus, he found some sponsorship this week for three more races.

“It’s been a really, really good week,” he said Friday in the interview room at Daytona International Speedway.

All he has to do now is sit back, relax, watch the hours go by until Sunday and then hope to begin putting the disappointment of last year way, way behind him.

But sit back and relax are not words usually associated with the three-time champion, who won three times last year but finished only ninth in the standings as he defended his 2011 championship.

“When I say I’m calm, it’s because I’m really happy with my car,” Stewart said. “I honestly don’t know what else to ask for. From a driver’s side, it’s a good scenario. There’s not a scratch on it. It’s ready to race. … That’s a position I don’t think we’ve ever been in.”

That and in Victory Lane after the Daytona 500.

Stewart is 0-for-14 at the Daytona 500. It’s one of the few races he has yet to win, although he’s won plenty of times on this track — four times in the prime-time summer race here, including last July.

But don’t let yourself believe he is at a handicap in this race. Stewart’s car is fast. He knows this track. He knows restrictor-plate racing. He could easily wind up stealing the spotlight from Danica Patrick and everyone else.

“Give him time,” driver Jeff Gordon said. “The greats of motorsports, of this sport, find a way to win the big races.”

Maybe Stewart knows this could be his year to win the 500. Maybe that’s what’s behind this sense of calm.

“He should feel proud that he has three very fast cars,” Patrick said. “He should feel proud that he has a team with his name on it, and that he has helped build and put a car on the pole for the Daytona 500. He should feel proud that he was a part of putting us together. Those are all things that I think he should feel proud for.”

Stewart is proud, all right. He knows what he potentially has on his hands.

Even the prospect of a ground-breaking Patrick victory won’t get in his way if she’s between him and the finish line. Asked if the prospect of denying Patrick her glory would enter his mind if they are 1-2 in the final lap, he said bluntly, “No.”

But there is a long way to go between now and the final lap.

“Even with the way the car’s run all week, it’s no guarantee,” he said. “It’s still a chess match. You’ve still got to put yourself in the right positions and be there at the end. I’m comfortable, yes, more than anything right now. I felt good when I got out of the car today. I didn’t feel like we still have work to do to get the car balanced or get speed out of the car. I feel like we’ve got both of those right now.

“At this point, it’s just a matter of waiting until Sunday and going out and doing our job.”

And one day before the Daytona 500, that is a good feeling.

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