Long: Tony Stewart finally gets chance to go to victory lane after a Daytona 500 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart was among the last to arrive to Daytona International Speedway’s victory lane Sunday night.

The future NASCAR Hall of Famer walked in to little fanfare, as cameras of all shapes and sizes focused on Kurt Busch, who drove through a maze of wrecked vehicles and then by fuel-starved cars in the final laps to win Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Stewart, now just a NASCAR owner after retiring from the series last season, arrived to the packed victory lane moments before Busch emerged from his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Stewart was finally in victory lane for a Daytona 500.

No other track has teased, tormented and tortured Stewart like Daytona. Sure, he has 19 total wins here, but it only makes what transpired in 17 Daytona 500s so vexing.

“We probably could have, should have won four or five of them and they got away,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s longtime crew chief who later became the competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Few hurt as much as the 2007 race when Stewart had one of the dominant cars before losing control and crashing into Busch.

Their paths intertwined in the 2008 Daytona 500 when Busch pushed Ryan Newman by Stewart on the final lap to help Newman win. Stewart finished third.

Stewart said he couldn’t look at Zipadelli for the week after that race, feeling he cost the team the win by not moving up to block Newman’s run.

There were other disappointments.

A favorite in 2002 after his Clash win, Stewart ran only two laps before his engine blew. He finished last. So frustrated, Stewart drove back to North Carolina instead of flying home.

Such disappointments became a pattern. The three-time series champion would excel in the events leading up to the 500 but be denied a victory in the sport’s biggest race.

His chances of winning faded in his final years driving in the series. His final three Daytona 500 appearances ended in finishes of 41st, 35th and 42nd before he missed last year’s race because of a back injury suffered a few weeks before the race.

No year could compare to 2001. Stewart tumbled down the backstretch and was taken to Halifax Health Medical Center. As Stewart was being treated, Dale Earnhardt was transported there after suffering fatal injuries in his last-lap crash.

Stewart went on to become one of the dominant voices in the garage in the following years. Five years after Earnhardt’s death, Stewart complained about the style of racing and said that if it continued “we’re going to kill somebody.’’

Stewart hated how blocking became prevalent — and necessary — to win restrictor-plate races. Even though he missed last year’s 500 because of his back injury, he made it clear he wouldn’t come back to run this event one more time because he never had won it.

It appeared as if his streak would continue Sunday even as an owner. Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were eliminated by accidents. Kevin Harvick’s damaged car finished 22nd.

When Busch was the only SHR car left on the lead lap, Stewart moved to Busch’s pit box.

Although Busch ran near the front it seemed only a matter of time before something would happen to him. After all, Busch was winless in 63 career restrictor-plate points races before Sunday.

Even when Busch crossed the finish line ahead of Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger, Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, didn’t react. It took him a few moments to register what had happened. Stewart helped.

“You just won the Daytona 500!’’ Stewart told Gibson.

Stewart then turned to Zipadelli.

“Hey buddy, we finally got one of these.’’

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Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said that the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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NASCAR America — My Home Track: 50 States In 50 Shows — Arkansas

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we continued our series of My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows as our trucks rolled into Arkansas!

We visited two short tracks in the state that produced President Bill Clinton and Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Plus we talked to NASCAR Hall of Famer and Arkansas native Mark Martin about racing in his home state.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.