Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Is This the Week Tony Stewart Breaks Through?

Joe M.Correspondent IIMay 20, 2009

CONCORD, NC - MAY 16:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 16, 2009 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Fresh off his 2009 Sprint-All Star Race win, Tony Stewart looks to build off this momentum.

Forget the fact that he has five top five finishes in his last six races. Forget the fact that he is traditionally a second half of the season driver who generally heats up in time for the Brickyard in July (my personal prediction for his first career win as driver-owner). Finally, forget the fact that he's never won "the 600" and has only won once at Lowe's Motor Speedway prior to last weekend's festivities.

This could be the week for a number of reasons. First, the Coca-Cola 600 affectionately known as "the Coke 600" is the longest race of the year, meaning driver fatigue will certainly become an issue at some point in the race for every driver. Who handles it best has a good chance to win, but endurance is key.

Just last year, after the first 500 miles, two-time "Coke 600" champion Jimmie Johnson would have won the race as he'd been leading after this interval. The extra 100 miles however, enabled Kasey Kahne to match Johnson, both in terms of career wins at the track with three, and "Coke 600" wins with two, after he secured the win late in the race.

Both drivers will be definite factors this weekend at a familiar venue where they historically run well. Look for each to run at or near the top when the marathon is finally over.

This additional 100 miles could prove to be just the unique "x-factor" Stewart needs to get his first Cup win as driver-owner. Need more evidence? A look at the track's history, particularly its recent history, reveals several repeat winners and few first-time winners.

Why would this benefit Stewart? He matches these winners in terms of experience, he just hasn't had the finishes to back this up. The final two points will help to better explain how else Stewart benefits despite never winning the 600.

For the first time since 2006, Stewart looks to have a complete team around him as team mate Ryan Newman is enjoying a comeback season with 5 top 5's and 5 top 10's in affirming his addition to the team as a brilliant career move.

J.J. Yeley served as one of Stewart's team mates in 2007 but never got close to making the Chase.

2008 was even worse for Stewart as Kyle Busch took his new team by storm, and went on to win a series-high eight races for Joe Gibbs Racing, completing the transition of face of the franchise from the veteran in Stewart, to a new kid on the block in then-22 year old Busch.

Completing the trying year by his standards, which still saw Stewart make the Chase anyway (a credit to his talent), was the on-again off-again negotiations to buy into Haas-CNC Racing which ultimately became Stewart-Haas Racing.

Having a known and trusted team around him, one he literally built from the ground up, has helped ease his responsibilities and allowed him to focus on the racing aspect. The success is bound to come sooner than later. Could last weekend be a preview?

By winning the Sprint All-Star Race, Stewart picked up a cool $1 Million bonus for his troubles. Consider how much this is and how far it can go on a team not only already showing signs of competing, but ultimately staying there.

In remembering the days of the infamous "Winston Million" challenge, where an individual driver could win this prize should he be victorious in three of the four "crown jewel" races of the sport: the Daytona 500, Winston 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500; the Sprint All-Star Race challenge serves initially the same purpose and accomplishes the same fiscal feat in one night.

Consider the driver who finishes last in the Daytona 500 walks away with $250,000 at the end of that night. Now multiply that effort by four and you've got Tony Stewart's pay out. 

With only two teams, his and Newman's, he has a chance to divide the winnings and incorporate them into two very powerful, affluent organizations that were hardly strapped for cash, or struggling competatively in the first place, unlike many of his competitors.

They have a chance to get even deeper in a hurry and Stewart's early business dealings appear to be wise beyond his years as he looks to be an excellent owner.

So who else could prove victorious this weekend?

Beyond my pick, Kahne, look for the usual veterans to take their place at an old familiar track, but don't discount the extra 100 miles. We could see a dark horse driver win, and if you are looking for one of those, why not try David Reutimann?

Like Stewart he'd be a first-time winner at the track, but unlike Stewart, it would also mark his first career Cup win.