Just Out of Reach: Will the Gates at Daytona Ever Open for Tony Stewart?

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Just Out of Reach: Will the Gates at Daytona Ever Open for Tony Stewart?

Daytona.

Nothing else needs to be said because everyone knows what that one word means. Everyone wants to make it to Daytona, and everyone wants to win there.

It’s the greatest race in NASCAR.

It’s the biggest race in NASCAR and one that if you win it, you’ll be among racing’s elite.

All the greats have won the 500: Petty, Allison, Pearson, Earnhardt, Waltrip(s) and all the eventual greats have won it, too: Johnson, Gordon, Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr.

It’s a difficult race to win and one of the most coveted.

Dale Earnhardt had to wait 20 years to get his hands on the Harley J. Earl trophy. That happens to be the longest current streak of a Daytona 500 winner.

Buddy Baker had to wait 18 years, Darrell Waltrip 17, Michael Waltrip and David Pearson 15, and Sterling Marlin 13 years.

Others haven’t had to wait as long.

Ward Burton did it in eight years. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson won it in five.

Ernie Irvan and Derrick Cope were the quickest to win the 500 in just three attempts.

Those are just some of the 51 Daytona 500 winners that will go down in history.

Except, the list is still missing names. 

When Rusty Wallace retired in 2005, he did so without ever winning the Daytona 500, although he gave it 22 great tries.

Mark Martin will have at it for the 25th time in February of next year; he’s still never captured the big event.

And then there is the man that might be following in Dale Earnhardt’s shadow: Tony Stewart.

Every which way that you could lose the Daytona 500, it has been accomplished by Stewart.

He’s lost it by leading on the last lap, being passed down the backstretch by Ryan Newman and then teammate Kurt Busch in 2008. 

A year later, Stewart hired Newman to drive one of his Stewart-Haas cars. 

He’s lost it by dominating; in 2004 he led half the race, 98 of 200 laps, and finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. after being passed with 19 laps to go.

"I think his father is proud today," Stewart said after that race. "I wanted to win the race. Trust me, if I could have held him off, I would have. But there was no holding that kid back. Today was his day."

He’s lost on lap one with a blown engine in 2002 and finished 43rd—dead last. Ironically, he started the year 43rd in points but would go on to win the championship, going from 43rd to first.

He’s lost it by being in the “Big One” such as 2001 when he went flipping down the backstretch.

Stewart has yet to create a good memory in the Daytona 500, but that doesn’t mean he can’t think of anything pleasant when it comes to the track.

“You know, I think probably still I was watching,” he said of the things he remembers most.

“I remember the race that Dale Earnhardt lost on the last corner on the last lap with a flat tire, and I remember Darrell Waltrip winning his first race and watching Dale Earnhardt Sr. get his win.”

Others would be, “Obviously Dale Jarrett with Joe Gibbs Racing; Petty, Pearson; Allison and Yarborough at the end of the backstretch with the fistfight and everything…they’re all pretty cool.”

What would be really cool is for Stewart to finally create his own memory of the Daytona 500, and win the one that keeps escaping him.

Like Earnhardt, Stewart has won everything there is at Daytona—except the 500.

Earnhardt is the all-time win leader at the track, with 34 victories, and Stewart too has picked up victories in the Budweiser Shootout, Gatorade Duels, Nationwide, and July race for a total of 12 wins at the speedway.

There is just one thing he has yet to cross off the list, the most important one. 

When he takes to the track in February it will be his 12th attempt at taking home the Harley J. Earl trophy. 

He’s won championships, he’s won road courses, Martinsville, Indianapolis, and everywhere in between. There’s just one more that he wants to win, one more that would mean everything.

Will this be the year come that Tony Stewart no longer has to answer the question: When are you going to win the Daytona 500? 

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