DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart’s Daytona 500 drought continues.
Stewart was involved in a five-car accident early in NASCAR’s season opener Sunday, sustaining enough damage to his No. 14 Chevrolet that it ended his chances of winning the “Great American Race.”
Stewart is winless in 17 tries in NASCAR’S premier event.
“Well, it’s just part of it,” said Stewart, the driver nicknamed “Smoke.” ”It’s not what we had planned.”
Stewart was hoping to end the losing streak after two tumultuous years, but he seemingly started the wreck on lap 41. Stewart moved up the track, got loose and triggered the minor mess. Stewart’s car turned right and slammed into the outside wall, damaging his right-front tire and steering.
Stewart spent significant time in the garage for repairs, got back on track for some meaningless laps and then called it a day with about 50 laps remaining.
He finished 42nd — the fourth time he’s been 40th or worse in the 500.
Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Blaney also were involved in the accident.
But Stewart drew all the attention — mostly because of his losing streak. He parked his car in the garage, climbed out and was cordial while conceding another defeat at Daytona.
He could have stayed on track until the end, but opted to stay out of the way down the stretch.
“We ran as many laps as we could,” he said. “We couldn’t run any more laps and gain anything. It’s the biggest race of the year, and the last thing you want to do is stay out there and have something else happen to get in the middle of something. Let’s just let those guys have their day.”
Stewart’s good days were few and far between the last two years.
He broke his right leg in a sprint car accident in 2013. Although he got back in the car last year, he wasn’t 100 percent and it showed in his performance. Then he fatally struck Kevin Ward Jr. in an August sprint car race in upstate New York, and retreated for three weeks to grieve.
Stewart was not himself when he returned, but used this past offseason to recharge and refocus.
He showed up at Daytona with a bounce in his step — feeling more confident than cursed — and no one would have been surprised to see him end the streak.
“To be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said last week. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a race car driver.”
His quest will have to wait at least another year.
He’s had his chances, too, most notably in 2008 when Ryan Newman edged him as neared the finish line. Even now, seven years later, he feels like he lost that race more than Newman won it. Newman got pushed to the win by teammate Kurt Busch.
Winning the Daytona 500 does not consume Stewart the way he once was about reaching victory lane at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His desire — an all-encompassing yearning, really — ate at him until his breakthrough victory at Indy in 2005.
Daytona doesn’t bug him the same way, perhaps because he is NASCAR’s winningest active driver at the superspeedway despite his record in the Daytona 500.
Between the July Sprint Cup race at Daytona, exhibitions, the second-tier Xfinity Series and the former IROC series, Stewart has won at Daytona 19 times. He trails only Dale Earnhardt, who had 34.
But the Daytona 500 can be a fluky race, complete with random winners. And someone has to be the odd man out. Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, in his 20th try.
Stewart understands that’s how it goes at Daytona.