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Stewart?s fast practice a final touch for 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart parked in his garage stall after making 28 laps in practice Friday at Daytona International Speedway. He pulled off his helmet, climbed out of his vehicle and walked away from the race car for the last time before the Daytona 500.

Stewart turned the top speed of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practices Friday, and then said he planned to sit out Saturday's final session before the Great American Race -- the only NASCAR crown jewel the three-time series champion has yet to collect. Stewart's speed of 197.131 mph was the best of the 22 cars that took part in Friday's second session, and was followed by those of Jeff Gordon and pole winner Danica Patrick.

"I wont see that car again until Sunday," Stewart said. "We actually have run all we're going to run the car until the 500. The motor that was in the car today is the race engine. We basically worked on our chassis setup and made sure we did our final run on the motor just to make sure there were no vibrations, no leaks, no problems. ? It seemed like it had really good speed, and I'm excited about Sunday now."

With the Daytona 500 now only days away, it was a cautious day of practice. Kevin Harvick, winner of last weekend's Sprint Unlimited exhibition and one of the Duel qualifying events Thursday, didn't practice at all. He took young son Keelan to see the Clydesdale horses as his crew tinkered with a No. 29 car which was covered up in its garage stall well before the day's final session came to an end.

Mike Dillon, vice president of competition for Harvick's Richard Childress Racing team, said the No. 29 crew put the race engine in the car, which would run only sparingly in Saturday's 90-minute final practice. Harvick's confidence level for Sunday?

"I'd say it's pretty good right now," Dillon said. "This deal, the 500, you've got a long day. You've got to get on and off pit road a lot, and have no mistakes there. And if you're up there in last 10 or five to go, you have a shot to win the 500."

Several other drivers -- Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya the most prominent among them -- also didn't practice Friday. Many of those who did skipped the day's first session, which was topped by Aric Almirola at 196.941 mph. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver shook down his No. 43 car one last time before his team put the race engine in it, and then sat out the day's second session.

"We've done enough running around here by now, racing in the Sprint Unlimited and racing in the 150s, that I feel really confident with what we've got as a package," Almirola said. "We're just looking for more speed."

Patrick sat out first practice, but did a 32-lap race run in the second and posted the day's third-fastest speed. "I don't think we even expected to do so much running," said Patrick, who will start the Daytona 500 from the outside lane. "But the car was good from the get-go. ? We're feeling much more comfortable and confident with the balance going into Sunday."

Patrick added she also planned to skip Saturday's final practice, and indications are she and Stewart won't be alone. "I don't think many people will be spending a lot of time on the track tomorrow," said Trevor Bayne, who turned four laps in a back-up car that replaced the one damaged in Thursday's first qualifier. "I doubt anyone will do any drafting."

The only incident Friday didn't occur on the race track, but at the exit of pit road, where the No. 51 car of Regan Smith broke a transmission part near the end of the second session. Otherwise, drivers practiced primarily in single runs or in multicar lines. Stewart's fast time continued a solid Speedweeks that also included a fourth-place performance in the Sprint Unlimited and a sixth-place result in Thursday's first Duel.

"We've made it through the whole week without a scratch on that car, and it's about as ready as it can get for the 500," he said. "So I'm excited. I feel like we have a car capable of winning the race. It's just a matter of whether the driver does a good job behind the steering wheel."

Stewart has enjoyed a great deal of success at Daytona, winning the track's summertime event four times, but has yet to capture the sport's biggest race. Sunday will mark his 15th attempt at the Daytona 500, and he knows from experience how unpredictable the event can be.

"Even with the way the car's run all week, it's no guarantee," he said. "It's still a chess match. You still have to put yourself in the right positions and be there at the end. I'm comfortable, I guess, more than anything right now. I felt good when I got out of the car today. I didn't feel like we had work to do to get the car balanced or to get speed out of the car. I feel like we've done both of those. So as far as the car is concerned, I feel real happy and content with it. I guess the weird thing is knowing we do have practice tomorrow, and we won't run a lap. ? I guess I'm just calm at this point. It's just a matter of waiting until Sunday and going out and doing my job."

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