Stewart sees shot

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As Tony Stewart sat in front of a TV watching the Indianapolis Colts celebrate their Super Bowl victory, he thought about the burden lifted from quarterback Peyton Manning.

Driver Tony Stewart waves as he walks through the garage area during practice at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart has won 10 victories at Daytona, but none in the Daytona 500.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Driver Tony Stewart waves as he walks through the garage area during practice at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart has won 10 victories at Daytona, but none in the Daytona 500.

"I sent him a text message right after the game was over," Stewart recalled. "I said, 'You got yours, finally. Now it's time for me to go get my Super Bowl.'"

That's Sunday's Daytona 500.

The two-time NASCAR champion is 0-8 in the race that every NASCAR driver wants, and one that has been very tough - or impossible - for some of the sport's biggest names to win.

It took Dale Earnhardt 20 tries, and Darrell Waltrip finally got to Victory Circle in his 17th attempt. Rusty Wallace never won it, and Mark Martin will get his 22nd try Sunday.

Stewart already has 10 victories on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile oval, including the non-points Budweiser Shootout last Saturday and his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday. This week's victories - and the ease with which he got them - have made Stewart the heavy favorite to win. Three-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon, who won Thursday's other qualifying race, agreed.

"He looks like he's just been hooked up," Gordon said. "The thing is, you need a great car, a little luck and a lot of confidence to win this race. It looks like Tony has all of that right now."

But Stewart, whose best finish was second in 2004, has been the guy to beat before.

"I'm excited where we are starting the race," said Stewart, who will start third, on the inside of the second row in the 43-car field. "Having had the best car in the past and not being able to finish it off kind of leads me to think it's one lap at a time for 200 laps on Sunday."

And he insists he would give every Daytona win for just one 500 victory.

"I feel like this is the best opportunity that we've had so far to win the 500," Stewart said. "This is definitely the most momentum we've had going into it."

Stewart just missed making NASCAR's 10-man Chase for the Championship last year but won three of the 10 Chase events. During the winter, he won a pair of midget races in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the sprint car Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla.

Even crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who has been with Stewart since he came to the Cup series in 1999, is whispering in his driver's ear about how this could be the year.

"I'm superstitious about everything, and I kind of feel, the way things are lining up, like maybe we'll have the opportunity to get it done this year," Stewart said.

A native of Indiana, Stewart started in open-wheel racing but never won his beloved Indianapolis 500 before moving to stock cars. In August 2005, he finally got to kiss the strip of bricks at the Indy finish line after winning the Brickyard race.

That was a watershed moment, but the overwhelming satisfaction didn't last as long as he thought it would.

"I'm very goal-oriented," Stewart explained.

"I said the weight of the world was off my shoulders when I won the Brickyard, and I thought, 'All right, I can die happy.' Then I thought, 'Now I've got to win Daytona.'

"And, if I win Daytona, I haven't won a race yet at Darlington, Talladega, Vegas and California. It's getting those other four tracks and being the only guy who has won on all the tracks we run on. That would be cool."

Stewart shut his eyes, rubbed his stubble of beard and leaned back, thinking for a moment.

"But then Indy will come back into play," he added. "There's always going to be something. I'll never be satisfied.

"So don't think that even if I win Daytona and I go on and win California and Darlington and Vegas and Talladega this year that I'll be satisfied. I will be, but then I'll be wanting to win a third championship and catch Jeff at 75 wins and all of that."

First things first, though.

"I can't even think about that other stuff if I don't win Daytona," he said. "I hope this is the year."

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS


1996: Named Indy Racing League IndyCar Series' Rookie of the Year


1997: Won IndyCar Series championship


1999: Named NASCAR Rookie of the Year after winning three races


1999: Became first driver to complete the Indianapolis 500 (finishing ninth) and Coca-Cola 600 (fourth) in the same day


2002: Won first Nextel Cup Series title (three wins, including MBNA America 500 in Atlanta)


2005: Won second Nextel championship (with five wins, including the Pepsi 400 in Daytona and the AllState 400 at The Brickyard in Indianapolis)


2006: Won IROC championship (with victories in Texas and Daytona)

- From wire services

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