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From the Marbles

Tony Stewart: Zeroing in on the Daytona 500

Jay Busbee
From The Marbles

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Tony Stewart wins at Daytona ... in the Duels. / Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With 17 stock car wins at Daytona International Speedway, Tony Stewart is one of the most successful drivers in history at NASCAR's most legendary track. His 17 victories rank second only to the 34 of Dale Earnhardt.

There's just one tiny little problem with that statistic.

For all his success at Daytona, for all his mastery of this track, the biggest prize — the Daytona 500 itself — has eluded Stewart. In 13 starts at the Great American Race, Stewart has notched six top-10s, including a second-place finish in 2004 and a third-place finish in 2008. But you don't race Daytona to get close to winning.

[ Related: What to watch for in the Daytona 500 ]

"It's not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column," Stewart said. "Everything else we have pretty much accomplished in this sport that we want to accomplish. It's the biggest race of the year; everyone wants to win that race. I won't say that it is not a complete career if you don't win it, but there is a lot of priority on this."

Thing is, even though he's as prepared as he could possibly be, even though he's in the prime of his talent and his team harmony, Daytona in 2012 doesn't exactly present the best opportunity for Stewart to win. The unholy combination of tandem and pack racing means every driver has a chance to run at the front, and every driver has a chance to get collected in a monstrous wreck. Skill is essential, yes, but extra helpings of luck and good fortune don't hurt either.

Still, Smoke isn't alone in his futility. Legends like Mark Martin have never won this race, and Stewart still has quite a ways to go before he equals Earnhardt's 19-race Daytona losing streak. And if he wins on Sunday, he may not get the kind of salute Earnhardt received when he finally won in 1998: every member of every pit crew lining pit road to salute him. (Stewart, after all, isn't lacking in accolades for his achievements these days.)

But even if he doesn't win on Sunday, he's got plenty of blessings to count, starting with those three championships. And as frustrating as the mounting losses may be, Stewart is patient:

"We've been leading late in these races, and so I feel like [with] the law of averages, we're going to get one eventually," Stewart said. "There have been a lot of them that have slipped away and slipped through our fingers. But we've had good luck here; we just haven't had that good luck during the 500 yet. So we'll just keep digging."

Right now, he's riding a win at the Duels on Thursday and a just-missed-it second-place finish at the Bud Shootout last Saturday night. On Saturday he'll run the Nationwide event, a race he's won an astounding four times in a row and six times of the last seven. Question is, is 2012 the year that he brings his Saturday Daytona dominance to Sunday?

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