DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As has become customary, Tony Stewart entered Sunday's Daytona 500 as one of the favorites. And why not? He has 19 victories at Daytona International Speedway, second only to Dale Earnhardt.
But as has also become customary, Stewart left Daytona Beach on Sunday night without the Harley J. Earl trophy. His 15th attempt at winning the Daytona 500 was effectively ended by a lap 34 crash.
Of Earnhardt's 34 victories, only one of them came in the Daytona 500. He went 18 years before winning his first 500 in 1998. Stewart's 15 year streak isn't there yet, but it's creeping so ever closer.
The crash started ahead of Stewart when Kasey Kahne went spinning towards the infield and Kevin Harvick hit the wall as the field checked up behind Kahne. Harvick's car spun to the inside, but when he was tagged by Juan Pablo Montoya it spun back up the track. The avenue that Stewart had to potentially get by on the high side was blocked and Harvick's car slammed into his.
Being taken out so quickly meant Stewart would take an early points hit. But when he was asked about that, the importance of winning a Daytona 500 was obvious in Stewart's answer.
"To hell with the season. I wanted to win the Daytona 500," Stewart said. "We had a car that we could pass with today. We were passing cars by ourselves ... Happy with our car, was just waiting for it all to get sorted out again. I don't know what started it, but we just got caught up in another wreck."
Last year, Stewart was caught in a crash on the tri-oval and finished 16th. In 2007, he and Kurt Busch crashed while Stewart was leading. While he's won the summer Daytona race four times, has three Sprint Unlimited victories and won Saturday's Nationwide Series race for the seventh time in nine years, the closest he's come to victory lane at the Great American Race is in 2008 when he was passed by Ryan Newman for the lead on the final lap.
There are other drivers with longer winless streaks; third-place finisher Mark Martin made his 29th Daytona 500 start without a win on Sunday. But the three-time champion Stewart has accomplished just about everything else in the Cup Series except win the 500, much like it was for Earnhardt until he won his first 500 at age 47. And that quest will continue into 2014.
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