Stewart-Haas chasing Daytona 500 win

Can Stewart-Haas Racing capitalize on fast Daytona start?

While Danica Patrick has taken most of the headlines for winning the pole position for the Daytona 500, the fact of the matter is that all three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are worth noting.

Patrick, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman took three of the top five positions in the NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying for the race, though at Daytona International Speedway only the top two drivers were locked into the field — Patrick and Jeff Gordon.

And while Newman’s car was damaged in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Thursday, Patrick and Stewart have made it through their pre-Daytona 500 events unscathed. Newman, meanwhile, remains confident that he can draft to the front in Sunday’s main event (noon ET on FOX).

The question is, can the organization Stewart co-owns convert a strong start into a Daytona 500 win? Newman is the only one of the trio who has snared that trophy — and his came in 2008 with Penske Racing. Patrick is running in only her second Daytona 500 and Stewart has three Sprint Cup titles, but no 500 victory.

Is this the year Stewart can change that?

With the exception of Newman’s Duel setback, the group has enjoyed a relatively clean run through Speedweeks. Patrick and Stewart preserved their cars through the Duel and ensuing practices. They both opted to sit out the final practice session after being fast in previous sessions. On Sunday, Stewart starts 13th, Newman 34th in a race where most everyone will run at the front and near the back at some point.

“This week has been an awesome week,” Stewart said simply before the final practice session, acknowledging all the positives of the week while also pointing out that those don’t offer much in terms of a chance to change the 500 outcome.

Newman, for his part, pointed out this kind of performance was just the latest step in the Stewart-Haas Racing restrictor-plate racing program. Being fast didn’t exactly catch him off guard.

"We were second in Talladega by thousandths of a second last year,” Newman said. “So, we had speed last year. It wasn't like all of a sudden we just got speed."

Still Newman admits that running so well down here has been great for the organization overall — up to this point.

Newman says that the team can certainly find satisfaction in the speeds it has shown so far — especially since that was its goal from the start.

“That is a big part of coming here, and we were very open about it when we tested that we were putting our emphasis on speed, not drafting,” Newman said. “At least from the No. 39 side. To come here and do what we did in qualifying made somewhat of a statement, no doubt. Tony also knows that when the racing starts that the speed is only a part of it, there's a lot more to it.”

Now they are all ready to just race.

The Daytona 500 is a beast under any circumstances, a race where drivers have faced switching methods of drafting in recent years – and in which each resulted in multicar crashes. It’s a race where drivers often find themselves mere victims of someone’s aggression or wrong move, where it doesn’t take much to turn a potential win into a 30th-place finish. This year, it’s a race where pack drafting returns to the sport and the Generation 6 model will first be tested with 43 cars in the restrictor-plate race.

Yet confidence is running high in the Stewart-Haas camp.

“I feel like we’ve got a car that’s capable of winning the race,” Stewart said. “It’s just a matter of whether the driver does a good job behind the steering wheel and puts it in the right positions.”

Part of that process involves finding drivers to draft with in the race.

For her part, Rookie of the Year contender Patrick was asked who she would like to draft with – and showed her awareness of the impact of her newcomer status. Patrick ran 10 Cup races in 2012, including the Daytona 500, but is making her full-season debut this year.

“You’ll take anybody you can get,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter. It’s a little bit different now that we’re not bump drafting. So, it’s not like you have people that you feel more comfortable with or not. It’s just pushing with air. So, I think that you’ll take anyone you can get to try and pull out and pass people. It’s going to take a fair amount of them. So, I’ll take ‘em where I can get ‘em.”

So can she do it? Can Patrick convert a pole position into a win on NASCAR’s biggest stage?

“Can I win? Yeah, absolutely I believe the statistic is a 17 percent chance starting from the pole, that is what somebody told me,” she said, then added. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable with these speeds, they are not a problem. For me it is just about finding out how to pass cars and having who I need to do it with, if I need somebody how to use them the best ways to get by.”

She says she knows that she will probably get shuffled back at some point. She knows she’ll have to figure out how to pass and work her way through traffic.

She knows what she faces – yet she still believes in her team.

“I know I’m inexperienced, I know that I’m a rookie out there,” she said. “I will do the best job I can. I believe I do have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a chance to win.”

For any of the three, capping a week such as the one they’ve had with a victory would be incredible.

For all of the three, the reality of just how much of a challenge that offers is also clear.

So can they do it? Can one of the Stewart-Haas drivers turn a stellar opening to Speedweeks into a win in the Daytona 500?

“Well, even with the way the cars run all week, it’s no guarantee,” Stewart said. “It’s still a chess match. You’ve still got to put yourself in the right position and be there at the end.

“… I guess I’m just calm at this point. It’s just a matter of waiting until Sunday and going out and doing our job.”

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