DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart has mastered how to win at Daytona International Speedway on Saturdays.
Now, if he could only figure out how to win on Sundays.
Stewart continued his domination of the Nationwide Series season opener, overcoming a late pit stop to fix a flat tire to catch Clint Bowyer at the finish line. It was his fourth consecutive win in the opener for NASCAR’s second-tier series and sixth in the past seven seasons.
He’s been unable to carry that success into the main event, the Daytona 500, a race he’s yet to win in 12 previous starts.
"The first thing I thought about is ‘Man, here we go with another Saturday that we win, and we’ll have bad luck (Sunday),’" Stewart said.
Stewart had bad luck on Saturday — a flat tire that forced him to give up second place for a late pit stop under caution. It dropped him to 11th on the restart, with six laps to go, and he hooked up with Landon Cassill to charge his way through the field.
Bowyer, the pole-sitter, led the field with Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him around the track. Bowyer and Earnhardt took off in a two-car pack, with Stewart and Cassill hooked up, and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano paired. The three two-car packs put on a thrilling show up to the final lap, when the Busch-Logano tandem ended with Busch hitting the outside wall and spinning down the track.
Bowyer had to brace for Earnhardt’s eventual attempt to pass, and he was busy blocking the move when Stewart and Cassill came blazing along the outside.
Stewart nipped him by .007 seconds, the closest finish in Nationwide Series history at Daytona.
"We just got a great run. We had a good pusher with Landon Cassill, able to get the two of us up there," Stewart said. "We had a lot of confidence going into the last stretch."
And he’s got confidence for Sunday, too.
"I’m probably the happiest guy going into the (500), now, coming off a win. It shows we can do it; it’s just a matter of if the cards play out," Stewart said. "It’s a tough race and physically for the drivers, mentally for the drivers, it might be one of the toughest 500s I’ve ran. What we’re doing inside the cars is a lot harder than it’s ever been, pushing guys, being pushed."
Bowyer was second to give Kevin Harvick Inc. a sweep of the top two spots, and owner Harvick celebrated atop a pit box. Stewart admitted after the race that had he not given up second for the flat tire, he probably would have stayed in line to ensure a KHI win.
"I talked to Clint before the race. I had told him if we were running second and he was leading, we had a pack around us, that I was going to just keep pushing," Stewart said. "That’s the hard part, making that decision when you have teammates, that you might have to make that decision not to try to win a race in an effort for the organization."
Bowyer probably wished it had played out that way after coming up just short for the second consecutive race. He lost to teammate Jeff Burton in a 150-mile qualifying race earlier in the week.
"I looked in the mirror, I saw Junior, the only Chevrolet up there, I knew that he was going to work with me. He shoved me all the way to the last lap," he said. "Coming off of four, what do you do? They had a good run. I tried to block (Stewart’s) momentum, about that time Junior ducked under me, I had to block him. All hell broke loose.
"You work the whole race to put yourself in a situation to be there at the end. I’ve been able to do it twice. I’ve just got to get it all together for (Sunday) and win the big one. If I could give these two up to win that one, make the third one a charm, it would be a helluva charm."
Earlier Saturday, Bowyer and Burton hooked up to post the fastest lap of the final Daytona 500 practice session, clocking a 200.316 mph lap.
Cassill finished third and became the series points leader. He doesn’t have a ride lined up for next week, though.
"I’m the points leader? I’m sorry, I don’t have a ride next week, so I’m going to bask in this for about seven days," he said.
Earnhardt, trying to win on the 17th anniversary of his father’s seventh and final Nationwide win at Daytona, finished fourth. Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"I would have liked to have won the race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was helping Clint there at the end and Tony on the outside had a great run. They took away my opportunity to try to pass Clint by myself. Should have just pushed Clint there at the end to the win. I was just trying to see what I could do, if I could win it somehow. But it didn’t work out."
Danica Patrick finished a career-high 14th.
"It was pretty fun," she said. "You know, definitely, I think as anybody who watched the whole thing saw, unless you had somebody to run with and you were going to push each other all the way around, you were going backward. So I didn’t really have anyone to push with."
The race developed the same way all of them have this Speedweeks, with two-car packs spread out all over the track because using a push has proven to be the fastest route. Although drivers insist they have no idea if it will play that way for 500 miles Sunday, Stewart said he was "100 percent" confident that’s what’s going to happen.
"They are going to start pairing up from the drop of the green flag, and for 500 miles, that’s how we’re going to run the race," he said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that’s going to happen."