Originally created 07/04/05

Daytona win puts Stewart over top



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Tony Stewart always has been a study of contradiction, but never more so than after Sunday morning's finish of the Pepsi 400.

A driver who is both engaging and sarcastic - often at the same time - didn't act like a man who hours earlier said Daytona International Speedway wasn't any more special than any other track on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule.

After winning the race, he climbed from his Home Depot Chevrolet and scaled a 15-foot fence to the starter's stand. Once there, he waved both arms in a wild celebration that will be remembered as one of the sport's most spontaneous reactions of all time.

A year already punctuated by Carl Edwards' back flips now has a newer, certainly more dangerous, standard.

"I'm way too old and too fat to be doing that," Stewart said following the most-dominant performance in the race's 47-year history. "But once I started, I was committed and I wasn't going to let the fans down. But I think I'm officially - well it's unofficial until it's verified I guess - but I think I'm unofficially the first guy that's gone all the way to the top and over and onto the flag stand. So (Helio) Castroneves has some work to do now."

Castroneves made fence-climbing popular after winning the 2001 Indianapolis 500. But he only went halfway up the fence to salute the fans. Stewart, as is his nature, went over the top.

Stewart led 151 of 160 laps to earn $368,261. The only time he didn't lead came during pit stops. No car passed him on the track during the race.

For Stewart, it was the third consecutive race he's led the most laps. It also gave Joe Gibbs Racing its first back-to-back victory in the organization's 14-year history.

Stewart now has led the most laps in three of the past four regular season races at the 2.5-mile speedway. But the victory that started two-and-a-half-hours late by rain Saturday and didn't end until 1:42 a.m. Sunday was his first at Daytona.

"I mean, this one's no different from any of the other of them on the schedule, in all reality," Stewart said before the race. "If I had to trade a win and only get one of them, I'd rather trade it for a February race obviously. Anytime you can win a race, whether it's here or Indianapolis or anywhere else, it's big. Right now, with the competition as tough as it is, a win is a win. You know, it's not going to be any more significant than anything else this year."

After the race, his actions proved otherwise.

"The last two years we've led enough laps to outright win the Daytona 500 so if there were ever a situation where you felt like it owed you I guess the one request that I would have is that we get it in February," he said. "No racetrack ever owes you anything. I've heard that from drivers; Michael Andretti was one that straightened a lot of people out. He said that all those years that he led laps at Indy 500s and didn't win; it's a place that you have to earn victories. They're not given to you."

An informal poll of 22 drivers recently placed Stewart on a list of five drivers considered the safest on the circuit. The same poll, however, also listed Stewart as one of the five most reckless - proving Stewart's passion for contradiction. His victory also went against the grain. He became only the third driver in the past 18 races at Daytona and its sister track at Talladega, Ala., to break the stranglehold of restrictor plate wins by Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip that dates back to 2001.

"The only time I can remember (being that dominant) was my first win in Richmond when we led 333 laps of the 400," Stewart said. "We were a young team and we didn't have the best of pit stops at the time; when we got back out after pits we were fourth or fifth but we came back and never got passed once we got in the lead. That's why tonight was great. I'm taking this car back to the shop and saving it for February."

Stewart now has two wins and a second-place finish in his past three races to jump from 10th to third in the standings.

Jamie McMurray rallied to finish second Sunday morning, followed by Earnhardt Jr. in third, Rusty Wallace in fourth, Dale Jarrett in fifth, Jimmie Johnson in sixth, Gordon in seventh, Mike Wallace in eighth, Matt Kenseth in ninth and Ken Schrader in 10th.

"We've got a lot of momentum, but I don't know if we're in the zone by any means," Stewart said. "It's a pretty cool compliment to Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) and Joe (Gibbs) and all the guys on the team to win in Sonoma (Calif.) and then come here six days later and win at a superspeedway at night. That's a pretty cool feeling."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net