When Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500, it was more than just another victory; it was one of the biggest races in the history of NASCAR. After 20 years of coming oh, so close, the Intimidator finally added that prestigious 500 win to cap off his Hall of Fame resume. Longtime fans can recall how many times he experienced heartbreak, holding the lead in the sport’s Super Bowl only to lose it in tough luck fashion during the closing laps. What made it even more frustrating was how well Earnhardt did in any other event held at Daytona, capturing every trophy from the Gatorade Duels to the now-defunct International Race of Champions. So when he finally did win the Great American Race, fourteen years ago, it went on to become one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR’s 60-plus years of existence.
In the years since his death, media and fans alike have been trying to figure out who would become the next Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon has the accomplishments; his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the genes; and his replacement in Kevin Harvick quickly became known as an aggressive driver, much like his predecessor. As time has gone on, though, it is clear that there will never be another racer like the Man in Black.
But here at NASCAR’s season-opener, a decade later Earnhardt’s presence is never far from fan’s minds, even now. And with the 2012 Daytona 500 just days away, there _is_ a story developing much like his quest for winning the Great American Race. As the Duels get set to go on Thursday, there is a driver locked into the field already, one that will be making his 14th attempt to pull into Victory Lane in the season opener. That man just so happens to be defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who also is the winner of five of the last 10 Cup races. At the age of 40, his career to this point has become somewhat similar to Earnhardt’s. Despite coming from different backgrounds, both become rookies at the same age of 27 and each developed bad reputations early on for being reckless that brought on criticism from other drivers and the fans. As the years went on, both slowly won over the respect of their competition and spectators by showing a true passion for auto racing and transforming into one of NASCAR’s best. After 13 seasons, the statistics for both are pretty comparable – Earnhardt’s 52 victories are just eight more than Stewart’s, while his championship count stood at five, just two more than the three Smoke currently has.
Perhaps the most frustrating comparison, though, is the number zero. That is the number of Daytona 500 wins both drivers had in their first 13 years on the circuit, a frustrating number considering each combined for a _total_ of 598 laps led in the big race. To take it even a step further, Stewart is also considered a master of Daytona. Smoke has won just about any type of race he has competed in at the 2.5-mile Speedway, including three Bud Shootout victories and six of the past seven season openers in the Nationwide Series. He even won twice in IROC at the venue, one of which was run as a road race.
Like Earnhardt before him, Stewart has experienced great success during Speedweeks only to come up short on Sunday. The first year of frustration came back in 2002, where entered the race as one of the favorites after winning the Shootout a week earlier and his qualifying race on Thursday. In just three laps, however, he was out of it when the engine expired in his Home Depot Pontiac. Two years later, he led the most laps, 98, only to be passed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (of all people) with under 20 laps to go. The following season, he became the first driver in over 20 years to lead the most laps in consecutive 500s: he paced the field for 107 circuits. Unfortunately for him, it was de ja vu all over again as Earnhardt Jr. blew by him, this time with under five laps left which set up Jeff Gordon’s come-from-behind win.
Heartbreak returned again two years later, when Stewart clearly had the fastest car in the race. After leading many of the early laps, “Smoke” showed his muscle by overcoming a setback on pit road. Sent to the back of the pack, he was able to take the lead in 70 laps without the aid of a caution. But just as the car repositioned itself up front, he got loose and crashed coming off of turn 4, taking out the other dominant car of Kurt Busch. The end result for Stewart was last place, the second time in his career he started off the season at the bottom of the charts. Twelve months later, in the 2008 event, it was more of the same, although this time it really looked like he was going to win. Stewart came to the white flag as the leader, the furthest he had ever come holding the top spot and appeared to be in command through Turns 1 and 2. But on the backstretch, with teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch charging towards him, Stewart made the questionable call of simply pulling over and letting them by. His strategy was to get a push from his new JGR teammate in Kyle Busch, but the No. 18 car was simply too far behind to help as the Penske duo rocketed by him for the 1-2 finish.
Since then, Stewart hasn’t been in contention enough to experience the frustration that he had become accustomed to in years past. Sure, he had a shot in last year’s running, starting second on the final green-white-checkered, but with the tandem-style drafting we saw in 2011, the ending didn’t really measure the strength or weakness of one driver or team – it was more about being in the right place at the right time. Stewart, without a partner down the stretch in that one could only watch as Trevor Bayne, with Bobby Labonte in tow pushed ahead to victory.
There are many stories to track in this year’s Daytona 500. How Danica Patrick does in her Sprint Cup series debut, along with the return of the big pack racing will likely remain the top headlines. Additionally, many eyes will be on Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson to see how they can do after falling short in last year’s Chase. The biggest story, however, should be whether defending champion Tony Stewart can carry over the momentum he had from the last ten races of 2011. If he comes through, winning this year’s Daytona 500, the moment will be more memorable than you think – rising towards Earnhardt’s special day in 1998.
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