It was all there. The trademark mischievous grin. The perfectly timed wisecrack. The twinkle in the eye. It was vintage Tony Stewart, and it was on display a few weeks ago during the annual Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Media Tour.
It’s Stewart’s state of being as the driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS begins his 17th year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, where his aim is a return to the championship form he displayed in 2011 when he scored his third Sprint Cup title.
Nonetheless, Stewart comes into 2015 fresh off a championship, albeit as a car owner. As the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, Stewart was able to hoist the championship-winning car owner trophy when his driver and teammate, Kevin Harvick, triumphed in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But there’s a reason Stewart is referred to as a driver-owner, for driving is his first priority. Since earning his most recent driving title in 2011 when he outdueled Carl Edwards in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart has won only four times in the three years since. For someone who is used to winning multiple times in a single season to earn a total of 48 career Sprint Cup victories – tied for 13th on the Sprint Cup Series’ all-time win list with NASCAR Hall of Famer Herb Thomas – Stewart is ready to go retro.
In a career that has seen three championships (2002, 2005 and 2011) and victories at all but two of the tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits, Stewart has a robust resume any racer would covet. But one trophy missing from his mantle is the Harley J. Earl, given to the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500.
The 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 22 will be Stewart’s 33rd career, point-paying Sprint Cup start at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. And while he has yet to score a Daytona 500 win, the “World Center of Racing” is a likely place for Stewart to return to his winning ways.
Among active drivers, Stewart is Daytona’s all-time race winner. Between point-paying Sprint Cup races, non-point races, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the former IROC series, Stewart has a total of 19 Daytona wins. The tally places Stewart second on the track’s all-time win list, 15 behind the late, great Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and is part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.
Stewart is a four-time Sprint Cup winner at Daytona, having scored victories in the annual Fourth of July weekend race in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012, the most among active drivers. Augmenting those four wins are nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and 668 laps led in 32 career, point-paying Daytona starts.
In his most recent Sprint Cup win at Daytona – the 2012 Coke Zero 400 – Stewart exercised textbook patience, waiting to make his move for the win well past the race’s halfway mark. He took the lead on lap 131 and led 21 circuits before relinquishing the top spot to the duo of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle on lap 152. A massive crash set up a two-lap dash to the finish and Stewart regained the lead on the final lap with an impressive drive around Biffle and Kenseth off turn two and down the backstretch. When another multicar wreck brought out the caution, Stewart’s victory was sealed. It was his 47th career Sprint Cup win.
Stewart arrives for Budweiser Speedweeks at Daytona with a reinvigorated focus on the future that is buoyed by past success. It’s the perfect balance, and it’s vintage Smoke.