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.’’