AVONDALE, Ariz. — Sitting second in what would be the final restart at the Daytona 500, Tony Stewart was in prime position to end his long and seemingly inexplicable winless streak in "The Great American Race."
But after a missed hookup with Mark Martin and another car or two thrown into the mix, the driver they call "Smoke" saw his hopes go up in smoke.
Now 0-for-13 in NASCAR's biggest race, Stewart can only shrug this one off and move to the next race. It's the only move he has at this point.
"It's over. We're on to Phoenix now," Stewart said Friday after a practice session at Phoenix International Raceway. " … If we're paying attention to what we did last week, we're not doing a good job this week right now."
Stewart, 39, has been a winner seemingly everywhere in everything.
He has championships in karts, midgets and USAC sprints and earned the 1997 Indy Racing League title. In Sprint Cup he has two titles and 39 victories. His 12-year run with at least one victory is the longest in the series.
He has had a lot of success at Daytona, too, with 16 total victories, including last weekend's Nationwide race.
But when it comes to the Daytona 500, Stewart can't quite pull it off.
An offseason repaving made two-car drafting the only way to get to the front last week. Stewart worked the system well throughout the race, moving to the front after starting 25th, but he just lost touch when he needed it the most.
Coming out of the restart, he and Martin, right behind him, tried to get a two-car train going. But they couldn't synch up, bouncing off each other's bumpers. Stewart and Martin began drifting apart; Martin found another drafting partner, Stewart didn't and it was too late for both. Martin finished 10th, Stewart 13th.
"We had an excellent shot at it, but as it turned out, we didn't get the run we had hoped, and the wind from the other cars broke us apart," said Martin, himself 0-for-27 in the 500. "It wouldn't have been any big deal if we would have had five laps left, but we only had a lap and a half left, and we were broke well apart — four or five or six car lengths."
Next up is Phoenix, which will look and feel quite different when NASCAR returns this fall.
Almost as soon as the checkers drop Sunday, the mile-long oval will undergo its first repaving in 20 years, along with a slight reconfiguration that will add progressive banking.
"Everybody's good when tracks have grip," Stewart said. "It's been that way in every form of racing that I've ever seen. It's when the crews have to work on the handling of the car and the drivers have to find ways of finding more grip or managing the grip they have — that's when it separates the men from the boys, so to speak."
A little less separation with Martin and Stewart could have been gripping one of the few trophies he doesn't have.