DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was about as happy as you'll see Tony Stewart following a fourth place race finish.
Leaning up against his mostly pristine Chevrolet SS after Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ had nothing but great things to say about the competition debut of NASCAR's Generation-6 race car.
And Stewart certainly put it to the test.
He set off a nine-car crash only 15 laps into the traditional season-opening exhibition race and was able to keep racing, only to have another close call with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the second of the three-segment non-points event.
And still Stewart's No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet led five laps and ran among the top three most of the night -- and was on pace to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick before a last lap move backfired.
"The first one, I self-cleared myself," Stewart said. "I thought I had a big enough run I could clear the third place car and obviously just nicked him, so I needed about two more inches.
"Then (in the second segment) when Dale Jr. came down into the middle, and where he was made me really tight. Then I got into him and couldn't get off him, bounced off him about three times. I made sure our spotter told him what happened.
"I definitely was in a enough interesting spots tonight, for sure and most of them I put myself there."
For all the contact, there was only a small amount of cosmetic damage on the right front of Stewart's car. And, he said, it didn't affect the handling or balance of the car at all.
"They are pretty solid race cars, right now, I'm pretty impressed," Stewart said. "It's like nobody's missed a beat. It's almost like it's not even a new car as far as how comfortable everybody got. It was pretty solid right off the bat. I think if it gets warm it could make this interesting and put it back in our hands again. It's still a chess match. Still gotta play chess."
And, Stewart conceded, he may need to hone his game just a bit.
His move from Harvick's bumper to the low lane on the last lap allowed the Fords of Greg Biffle and Joey Logano to get the better of him.
"Tonight's the reason why I haven't won the Daytona 500 yet," Stewart said. "I'm not sure where I've got to be on the last lap there and what to do. We heard the Fords were ganging up and trying something then I saw the 22 car (Logano) down on the bottom all of a sudden. I went where I thought was the right place to be and we lost two spots with it.
"But I'd rather try something and not have it work then stay and lose a bunch of spots and be more frustrated because I didn't try something."
The solid finish was a fitting ending to an encouraging day for the Stewart-Haas Racing owner/driver.
Earlier in the day his rookie driver Danica Patrick led the way in practice for Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying. He and SHR's other driver Ryan Newman were also among the quickest eight cars -- something not lost on Harvick's team owner Richard Childress, who declared after the race Saturday, "I think she'll (Patrick) definitely be the car to beat for the pole."
As Stewart was taking the checkered flag in Saturday's race, he was already thanking his crew on the radio for the total effort that has gone into Speedweeks.
"I'm really proud of organization to come in a clutch like this after having to build race cars at the last minute," Stewart said. "Three cars in the top-eight in practice today and to have the car we had tonight, I couldn't be more proud of the effort and the results that showed tonight from it."
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-- Tony Stewart
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