DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart didn’t leave Daytona International Speedway with a trophy Saturday night, but he sure felt like a winner.
The two-time champ led four laps and finished third in the season-opening Budweiser Shootout exhibition race — his debut as a NASCAR Sprint Cup owner-driver. It’s the best showing for an owner-driver in this series in 10 years — since Ricky Rudd finished third at Talladega, Ala. in 1999.
“It’s a proud moment after watching this develop and seeing how we got here. It hit a little harder when we led those first laps. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t (emotional).”
A 75-lap non-points race is hardly the Daytona 500, but it was a good test of man and machine after an off-season with virtually no track time. It was particularly important to Stewart in his new venture as boss a two-car operation that also includes last year’s Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.
He has been meticulous and focused and consumed with making this Cup effort as successful as every other thing he’s had a hand in — from running Eldora Speedway in Ohio to guiding his team to the World of Outlaw championship last season.
“I just wanted to get through the race, get that first pit stop out of the way,” the two-time Cup champ said. “My goal at the end of the day was that if we can finish, we’ll take whatever it gives us.
“I’m going to bed tonight with a lot of confidence.”
And that should worry Stewart’s competition.
Not only did he prove himself and his team every bit the contender right out of the box, he did so while fighting a bit of a cold and claiming this car isn’t nearly as good as the one he’s got for the 500 next Sunday.
“We led laps, we were a factor parts of the night. … at the end we ended up where we needed to be,” Stewart said. “I’m excited about it. We’ve got a direction. We got the first one out of the way. Everybody got the cobwebs knocked out of them. …. It was an awesome debut.”