February 23, 2005 | 8:18 A.M. EST
That turned out to be the case, as first Gordon, then Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Gordon again took turns at Stewart, who was glued to the inside line and hoping against hope that something—anything—would happen so he could drive to Victory Lane. Well, it didn’t, and he didn’t, and for yet another February, Stewart loaded the old Chevy up and drove home thinking about what might have been.
For the second straight year, Stewart led the most laps (107) and he had the best car for much of the day. For the second straight year, he watched someone else drive into Victory Lane and collect a very large check. The money’s nice, some $1.5 million, but it’s the trophy that matters. Only 29 men have that trophy, and it is considered as important among stock car drivers as a Super Bowl or World Series ring is to stick-and-ball types. Ask Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin how important that trophy is. There’s a permanent hole in their trophy cases now.
Stewart was pretty upbeat after the race, despite the post-race dustup with Jimmie Johnson that earned both drivers a trip to the principal’s office after the race. He thanked his crew for giving him such a great car and he waxed philosophical about the restarts which cost him a chance at victory. He even found time to get in a one-liner about what he and Johnson discussed with NASCAR officials after the race. “We were trading cooking secrets,” he quipped.
One of these days, Stewart will unlock the secret of winning a Daytona 500. Or maybe he won’t, given the way things happen in restrictor-plate racing. He nearly got it right last year, losing out to Earnhardt with a handful of laps remaining. He came four laps—and a drafting partner--from getting it right on Sunday. It’s a pretty safe bet he’ll get another chance to get it right in the future, but if he doesn’t, at least everyone will have known he was in the mix. That’s more than a few drivers have had.
As for the race itself, it was pretty exciting, and one more kernel of proof that NASCAR does, in fact, make changes that actually help the racing rather than hurt it (for example, the disastrous 5&5 rules package of 1998). Gear ratios, aero packages, softer tires, it all blends together after a while. Thank God NASCAR decided to go to green-white-checkered finishes. Had this race finished under yellow, it would have wiped out all the good that the previous 190-plus laps had created.
Finishes like the one Sunday cannot be legislated, and the racing was sharp, vicious and entertaining all at once. If this is a taste of what is to come in NASCAR this season, then it’s going to be a wild ride.