Will Tony Stewart finally break Daytona 500 jinx on Sunday?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What should potentially be one of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 hasn’t even registered a blip on the NASCAR media radar this year.

With so much attention focused on Austin Dillon bringing the legendary No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series after a 13-year absence and then putting it on the pole for Sunday’s race, the media seem to have forgotten an almost equally important story.

Tony Stewart will make his 16th consecutive career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, making him third among active drivers with the most starts without a win in the field for the Great American Race.

Terry Labonte, who has announced that Sunday will be his final career start at Daytona, tops the list with 32 starts in the 500 without a win. Brother Bobby will make his 22nd start on Sunday without a win in the big race.

Over the last four or five 500s, Stewart has come into Speedweeks as arguably one of the key focal points of media attention not because of what he’s done, but what he’s not done.

But no one is talking about Stewart’s 0-for-15 record in this year’s edition of Speedweeks.

Stewart comes into Sunday as essentially the Dale Earnhardt of his generation when it comes to Daytona 500 success. After years of frustration, Earnhardt finally won his first – and ultimately only – Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998.

At the same time, Stewart, a winner of 48 career races in 521 starts on the Cup circuit, is somewhat of a paradox.

It’s not that he’s a bad driver at Daytona. In 30 career Cup starts there, he has four wins, but all have come in summer’s Coca Zero 400. Stewart also has nine top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

He also has seven Nationwide Series wins there.

After four top-five and three other top-10 finishes in an eight-year stretch of the 500 from 2002 through 2009 (he also finished a career-worse 43rd in 2007), Stewart has struggled in the last four editions of the Great American Race: 22nd (2010), 13th (2011), 16th (2012) and his second-worst finish in the race, 41st, last season.

“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”

A Daytona 500 win is unquestionably “No. 1” on his bucket list, Stewart said.

“I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at,” Stewart said, referring again to Le Mans, the Indy 500, etc. “But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”

With Sunday being Stewart’s first official points-paying Cup race since last summer’s wreck in a sprint car race that resulted in a severely broken leg and caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season, a win Sunday would be all the more sweeter.

That’s not to say Stewart hasn’t come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race. He was runner-up in the 2004 race and third in 2002 and 2008.

The latter finish still eats at Stewart six years later, when he watched Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch make a last lap charge past him to the checkered flag to finish 1-2.

“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently,” Stewart said. “If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end.

“I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed – I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.

“That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”

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MRTI: Lucas Oil Raceway Recap

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Friday marked Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, but there was also plenty of activity over in Brownsburg, Indiana at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Friday night’s Carb Night Classic featured the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in their first oval events of the year: the Freedom 75 (USF2000) and the Freedom 90 (Pro Mazda).

Both races saw the points leaders in their respective series dominate, further asserting their championship prowess, and taking their first oval victories in the process.

Recaps of both races are below.

Pro Mazda: Thompson Holds Off Cunha for First Oval Win

The Freedom 90 saw Parker Thompson appear to be almost on cruise control for much of the race, as the Exclusive Autosport driver immediately jumped into the lead off the initial start and he began rocketing away from the field.

Behind him, a pair of Juncos Racing cars emerged in second and third, with Carlos Cunha ahead of Robert Megennis in that battle.

However, Thompson’s initial lead was wiped out following a Lap 46 crash involving David Malukas and Harrison Scott. The pair had been engaged in an intense battle for fourth, but came together in Turn 4, sending Scott spinning into the outside wall while Malukas eventually came to a stop alongside the front straightaway wall.

Thompson again pulled away when racing resumed on Lap 55, while Cunha immediately gave chase, passing the lapped car of Lodovico Laurini as he tried to keep Thompson in his sights.

Lapped traffic continued to play a key role in the closing stages, with Thompson getting briefly held up behind Nikita Lastochkin and Oliver Askew, allowing Cunha to close onto his gearbox in the final laps.

However, Thompson kept Cunha at bay to take the win, his third of the Pro Mazda season. Megennis drove a solid race to finish third, while Rinus VeeKay put three Juncos cars in the top five by finishing fourth. Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb finished fifth.

Thompson’s win sees him extend his points lead over VeeKay to 36, with Cunha only two points further back in third.

USF2000: Kirkwood Rolls to Victory in Oval Debut

Kyle Kirkwood was untouchable at Lucas Oil Raceway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

If his first career oval proved a challenge for Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood, he certainly did not show it. Starting on the pole, Kirkwood rocketed away into the lead and was never challenged.

Behind him, however, his closest title rival faltered. Alex Baron, who charged from eighth to third on Lap 1, crashed out while working his way around the lapped car of Russ McDonough. Baron was visibly upset and frustrated while walking along the pit lane after climbing out of the No. 29 Swan-RJB Motorsports Tatuus USF-17.

Racing only briefly returned to green on Lap 40 before Zach Holden rode up and over the back of Julian van der Watt, with both cars coming to a stop on the back straightaway.

A restart on Lap 50 again saw Kirkwood pull away, while Kaylen Frederick worked his way up to second around Rasmus Lindh and Lucas Kohl.

The race came to a close only eight laps later – the cautions brought a 30-minute time limit into play, preventing them from completing the originally planned 75-lap race.

In the end, no one got close to Kirkwood, who took a win on his oval debut, his third win of the 2018 season. Frederick came home second for his first podium of the year, and his first with Pabst Racing Services, while Rasmus Lindh rounded out the podium in third. Kohl and Jose Sierra completed the top five in fourth and fifth.

Kirkwood’s win combined with Baron’s crash to give Kirkwood a championship lead of 44 points. Sierra remains third, one point ahead of Igor Fraga.

Both series are back in action for double-headers at Road America on June 23-24.

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