After 35 NASCAR Sprint Cup races over 18 years of competition that led to four Cup victories, No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Ducks Unlimited Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart said his final goodbye to Daytona International Speedway Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.
In his swan song on the famed 2.5-mile oval, the three-time champion finished 26th in his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) entry after looking like he might win his second consecutive race of the season. Stewart avoided early trouble then battled in the top-five as the race wound down, but with 10 to go the No. 14 slammed into the wall, ending his chances for victory.
Stewart took the blame for the incident.
“I just overcorrected for it and drove it into the fence,” said Stewart, who 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. “So definitely my fault. I don’t know why I got loose, but I got loose going into (turn) one.”
Despite his misfortune, Stewart moved into the top-30 in the driver standings by a three-point margin over 31st-place Brian Scott. If Stewart can remain in the top-30 through the 26th race of the season, he will secure his spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff by virtue of his victory last week at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
Stewart started 19th Saturday and immediately drifted toward the back of the field to avoid the inevitable multicar crash and prepare his car for the all-important final-lap dash that so often determines the winners and losers in restrictor plate racing. He admitted before the race it wasn’t his style or inclination to run in the back, but he said Saturday’s race would be a “Peyton Manning night” where the team would call an audible every lap.
Stewart stuck to that strategy as he ran around 35th in the 40-car field for much of the early going, knowing he could go to the front at any time. That proved the correct strategy as the race ran without incident until lap 90, when Jamie McMurray was turned into the wall, triggering a 22-car accident that eliminated more than half of the 40-car field.
“We are in good shape, boys,” Stewart told the team after vaulting to 13th by missing the wreck in front of him. “I love when our plan pays off.”
After a lengthy caution and leading a lap when the field came to pit road, Stewart restarted the race in 22nd with 59 laps of racing remaining in the 160-lap event. Stewart raced 18th with 30 to go. A fuel-only pit stop with 27 to go moved Stewart to fifth, where he remained the next 17 laps.
Despite the 26th-place finish Saturday night, it was another encouraging performance for the No. 14 team. Saturday night’s race came just six days after Stewart’s last-corner pass Sunday afternoon at Sonoma to capture his 49th career victory and break an 84-race winless drought. He qualified sixth and ran in the top-10 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway three weekends ago. The following weekend, he qualified third and finished seventh at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. On the road course last week at Sonoma, he started 10th and led the final 22 laps, briefly losing, then regaining, the lead on the final lap.
Stewart leaves a legacy at Daytona. He owns a total of 19 Daytona victories, encompassing Sprint Cup races, non-points races, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the former IROC series. 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.