While his good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in victory lane, Tony Stewart yet again left Daytona International Speedway with an empty feeling. While he made a valiant comeback from injury, his day at the 2014 Daytona 500 ultimately fell well short of expectations.
Stewart began the race in 21st and immediately dropped to back of the pack in order prevent getting swept up in an early wreck. He and teammate Danica Patrick paced shotgun on the field with the likes of Carl Edwards and Michael Waltrip. They bided their time to the red flag at lap 39, and continued their patient strategy afterwards as well.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the one called “Smoke,” it’s to never count him out. Just six months removed from a devastating sprint car crash that left him with two broken bones in his leg, the fact that he was able to race on Sunday is amazing. While his early strategy may have been to bide his time, you have to believe that he was going to be competing at the end.
Throughout speedweeks, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion was finding success. He finished 11th in the Sprint Unlimited due to an accident, but ran well. In his Gatorade Duel, Stewart finished 10th after starting 18th. He also posted laps fast enough to be in the top-15 in three of the six practice sessions throughout the week.
The 56th running of the Daytona 500 was Stewart’s 16th attempt at winning the Great American Race. He’s finished inside the top-10 six times with one second place finish. He has won the Pepsi 400 four times, but has yet to cross the Daytona 500 off of his NASCAR bucket list.
On Sunday, lady luck just wasn’t on Stewart’s side. At around the halfway point in the race, Stewart began to experience problems with his race car. Gauges started flashing red and he complained about a lack of fuel pressure. After spending extensive time on pit road and in the garage, Stewart rejoined the race 27 laps down. He would go on to finish 35th.
The road to the Daytona 500 was one that has been traveled by few for Stewart. He returned still in the recovery process of a serious injury just so he could take a shot at winning the elusive crown jewel of NASCAR. Once again, however, the decorated race car driver leaves Daytona without the one thing that will complete his trophy case: a Daytona 500 victory.