Winning a race in any auto racing series is hard.
From skill and determination, equipment and teamwork, to race day luck and strategy, it must all come together in order to be the first one to the checkered flag.
The annual endurance race at the Daytona International Speedway, The Rolex 24 at Daytona, puts all those keys of success to the ultimate test. Originally a three-hour race, then a 200-kilometer distance event, before finally turning into an all day affair, the Rolex 24 is the first major auto race in the United States at the start of each New Year.
Since the NASCAR season doesn’t kick off until a week later, you’ll find oval racing’s stars trade stints in the prestigious race where winning drivers from all classes go home with a brand new Rolex Daytona watch.
Casey Mears and Juan Pablo Montoya are two NASCAR drivers that have a watch around their wrist; Montoya actually has two, winning back-to-back with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2007 and 2008.
However, no drivers will feel the agony of defeat in the Rolex 24 than what came a few years prior.
Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. work well at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, they also get along well off them, becoming fast friends since they started racing together in 2000. So when the two were paired with road course ace Andy Wallace for the 2004 Rolex 24 it was a winning combination.
Stewart would be entered in the race for the second time, his first appearance two years prior in 2002 when an engine problem ended his team’s race past the halfway mark. Earnhardt Jr. would also be appearing for the second time, he first raced in 2001 with his father where they finished fourth overall.
But over the course of two days in 2004, the blue and red Crawford CITGO Chevrolet was the class of both the field and race, for much of the time. Each driver—Wallace, Stewart, and Earnhardt Jr.—took their time in their stint and worked up a rhythm that was one lap ahead of the field.
Earnhardt Jr. was behind the wheel during the night stint as the rain came and started to make a mess of the course. At 7:38 a.m. on Sunday as the sun rose officials stopped the race, just past the 19-hour mark. For the next three hours everyone sat, plotting a new strategy for when the race restarted.
The track conditions would be different, the cars would now react in a manner the drivers had not dealt with over the last half of a day, and there would only be about five hours to figure it all out.
Five hours to catch the Crawford team that had things well in command.
After the race restarted Stewart took the reins of the machine that had been leading since the seventh hour late Saturday night. Five hours to go and the car was screaming around the high banks, through the road course, and headed to an historic win.
Four hours left and still in control.
Three hours to go and the excitement began to build as the race continued to wind down.
With two hours to go it was in reach, everyone on the team could feel it now. Except, inside the car Stewart was feeling something else. The wheels didn’t feel right and the car wasn’t handling properly.
Over the final 90 minutes Stewart had to make three unscheduled pit stops as the team tried to figure out what was going wrong. Through it all though they continued to hold the lead with just an hour remaining.
With 30 minutes before the checkered flag came out, white smoke began to bellow out of the No. 2 machine as it raced to the finish. And then it stopped, as did the pursuit of victory for NASCAR’s biggest stars.
For 23 hours and 45 minutes everything was right in the world, everything held together.
But with just 15 minutes remaining on the clock, the world watched as Tony Stewart tried to steer the ailing beast down the backstretch before the left rear tire pulled off of its rim, the car spun, and came to rest next to the wall.
It was over.
All the hard work, focus, determination, and 20 plus hours of nothing but heart was all for not as Andy Pilgrim drove his No. 54 pasted Stewart and into Daytona’s victory lane.
After the mangled Crawford Chevy was brought back to the garage Stewart told the world, “I told the team I wanted hazard pay for driving on two wheels. None of the tires on the rear were on the ground and it kept getting worse and I could still run fast enough to pull away from second and win this thing, but then the tire came off and turned sideways.”
Pilgrim and Bell Motorsports sprayed the champagne that appeared to have been sitting on ice for the Crawford team, as owner Max Crawford could only file away another disappointment.
“It’s happened before,” he said. “We had a motor blow up in Le Mans with 23 (hours) and change. It happens.”
While the team and fans all over the world spent the day wondering what could have been, Earnhardt Jr. smiled and reflected. “They put me in a fast race car and I don’t do this everyday. All you can do is set a pace you’re comfortable with and run it and hope it’s good enough.”
“You can’t predict problems like we had.”
Nor would anyone predict that when Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. returned to the Daytona track two weeks later, February 15, they would dominate another big race: the Daytona 500.
Combined, the two led 155 of 200 laps with Stewart in front the most, Earnhardt Jr. following in his footsteps. But victory in the 500 wasn’t possible for both drivers and after spinning down the backstretch in the Rolex 24; Earnhardt Jr. would pass Stewart down the backstretch with 19 laps to go.
They finished first and second that day and all seemed to be forgotten of the ill-fated endurance race. Heartbreak to happiness in just a matter of days.
However, if the two drivers were to ever return to participate in the event, which they haven’t done since 2004, maybe the third time will be the charm.
There is still unfinished business for Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.