Daytona Beach, Fla. — In hindsight, 2002 might have been an omen of how heartbreaking the Daytona 500 would be for Tony Stewart.
He had established himself as the driver to beat, but never even get a chance to race for the win. An engine failure just two laps into the race had Stewart almost back home in North Carolina before the checkered flag fell.
Two years later, he ran second to winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He was a contender in 2007, only to wreck out of the race in an incident with Kurt Busch. The following year, he was leading down the backstretch on the final lap when Busch's push of teammate Ryan Newman helped Newman snatch the win.
Scoreboard: 17 Daytona 500s, 0 wins for one of NASCAR's biggest stars.
"The one in 2008, when Newman passed him coming to the line, that one hurt," Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief for so many of those heartbreaking finishes, said Wednesday. "They all hurt because we want to win. And we have all these times where we say we could have won it, at least three or four where we simply had a phenomenal race car. Things go differently, maybe he's won four or five of these."
Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion, is the current version of the late Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt won everywhere and racked up championships, but came up short time and time again in the "The Great American Race." Not until his 20th try did Earnhardt get that elusive win, leading to one of the most iconic memories in NASCAR history as crews lined up along pit road to greet him as he headed to victory lane.
Now the clock is ticking on Stewart, who will make his 18th start in Sunday's season opener.
He hasn't given up on this race, one of just a few on the Sprint Cup schedule he's never won.
"Not until the day that I don't run here anymore," he said of wondering if he'll ever win Daytona 500. "Everybody has got a shot here. We've been in that position before. That at least gives you confidence that you've got a shot."
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 2005 victory.
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 Earnhardt, who had 34.
But the Daytona 500 can be a fluky race with random winners — Derrike Cope won in 1990 when Earnhardt blew a tire, Trevor Bayne won in his first start in 2011 because of where he was and who was pushing him on the final restart — and it's just never gone in Stewart's favor.
Stewart understands that it goes that way at Daytona, but that 2008 race does bother him the most. To this day, he believes he lost it more than Busch helped Newman win.
"I had the option. I could have done something, but if I did that, I took a risk of wrecking the entire field to win the race," Stewart said. "I chose to not wreck everybody, and I don't remember where we ended up, but we were leading until we got to the middle of the backstretch on the last lap."
He finished third, the agony of defeat all over him that day as he faced yet another oh-so-close moment.
Now Stewart goes in to another Daytona 500 with hope, even a little hype, that this might be his year.
He's had a horrible two years both on the track and off since he broke his leg in a sprint car accident in 2013. Although he was back in the car last year, his leg wasn't 100 percent and his performance was below par. Then he fatally struck Kevin Ward Jr. in an August sprint car race in upstate New York, and he retreated for three weeks to grieve.
Stewart was not himself when he returned, but used this past offseason to recharge and refocus.
The difference has been noted by everyone around him, and he was loose and eager to race again in last Saturday's exhibition race. He'd picked his way through the field to run as high as fourth — even declaring to his crew over the radio that the other drivers should recognize "we came to play" — before a crash ended his race.
But he's as close to the old Smoke as he's been in years, and few are counting him out on Sunday.
"He's as relaxed and as focused and as excited as I've seen him in three or four years," Zipadelli said. "The last few years have been trying on everybody, including himself. But he realized he needed to get focused and come back in a better place. He's really truly glad to be here. Smoke wants to prove to the world that he's not done, and we all know that can be a dangerous thing."
Patrick forced into backup
Danica Patrick's road to Daytona 500 just got a little trickier.
Two years after Patrick's won pole position on her way to a surprising eighth-place finish, NASCAR's sole female star conceivably could miss Sunday's race after a five-car wreck during the Sprint Cup practice session.
Patrick will be forced to use her backup car and to start from the back of the pack during the second of Thursday's Budweiser Duel qualifying race.
She will have to finish in the top 15 to guarantee herself a spot in her third Daytona 500.
"I'm fine, other than really obviously disappointed," Patrick told reporters after a brief medical examination. "I know it was a good car. I was just riding along and it turned. It's the nature of pack racing. That's what makes it challenging, too.
"Sometimes there's not much you can do about it."
Denny Hamlin , a 24-time NASCAR winner, took responsibility for Wednesday's mishap.
"I guess I'll take the blame," he said. "I was going through the middle and in practice you can't make those aggressive moves, you want to protect your car.
"You always have to give a little bit extra room in practice."
Patrick said it looked like Hamlin "was trying to pull out and make a third lane in the middle. It felt like it must have caught my bumper."
Whatever happened, Patrick's green No. 10 car was totaled, essentially forcing her to race her way into Sunday's Daytona 500.
Patrick finished 28th in points last season and qualified 30th on Sunday, leaving her in need of a lot of help if she finishes outside the top 15 Thursday night.
Patrick was in the same position at the 2014 Duels. An engine change forced her to start from the back row. She went on to finish 13th and began in Row 14 in the 27th position.
"We knew we were going to have to run hard in the duels no matter what," she said Wednesday. "That doesn't change, still have to."
In Patrick's favor, her back-up car was used by Kurt Busch in 2014 when he finished third during the Pepsi 400 last July at the Daytona International Speedway. Patrick logged some laps in her backup car during the second practice session Wednesday.
Also, Thursday's second Budweiser Duel lacks the established starpower of the first race, outside of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Hamlin.
The night's first race features pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, three-time Sprint Cup winner Tony Stewart, reigning Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., two-time winner Matt Kenseth and 2014 Cup winner Kevin Harvick.
Earnhardt, who also won in 2004, said pretty much every driver who earns a spot in Sunday's 43-car field has a chance due to restrictor plates and the rigid car specifications at Daytona.
"Any car in the field, almost, is competitive enough to win the race," he said. "It's not like that at all race tracks. So the guy the makes the right move and the crew chief that makes the right choices can get anybody to Victory Lane in this race.
"It makes it a real challenge."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. recognized the anniversary of his father's death Wednesday, saying it was not a day for mourning.
Junior took to Twitter to acknowledge the 14th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death, which came on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. wrote: "(On) this day I do not mourn his death. I thank God he lived. #DaleEarnhardt."
He later said the date doesn't really stir painful emotions anymore.
... Just days after Daytona 500 pole qualifying turned into a debacle, NASCAR has tweaked qualifying procedures for its lower series at Daytona International Speedway.
The Xfinity Series and the Camping World Trucks fields will be divided into four groups instead of two for the first round and will last two-and-a-half minutes instead of five. That should force cars to leave pit road instead of playing cat-and-mouse games with competitors.
NASCAR also will stage cars on pit road in a single file before the clock starts. When the cars pull out of line, they must leave pit road.
On Sunday, the Daytona 500 qualifying session was done in knockout rounds for the first time in 57 years. Drivers jockeyed for position on pit road, leading to a traffic jam.
... NASCAR named series official Kim Lopez as the chief starter for Sunday's Daytona 500. Lopez will become the first woman and first Hispanic to flag the race.
Lopez is in her 11th season with NASCAR and has flagged races for the past seven years in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series. She also flagged two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races last season.
The chief starter displays the eight flags that tell the drivers to start, slow down, move over or stop. Lopez also will wave the checkered flag when the winner crosses the finish line.
Lopez says: "You have little girls who can now look up and say, 'I can do this someday, I can be this someday.' "
News wire services contributed\
Track: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles), Daytona Beach, Fla.
Schedule: Today, practice (Fox Sports 1, noon-1:30 p.m.), qualifying races, 7 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, 5-10 p.m.); Friday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 2-3:30 p.m.); Saturday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 10:30 a.m.-noon); Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (Fox, noon-5 p.m.)
Distance: 500 miles (200 laps)
Last year: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening race for the second time.
Alert Today Florida 300
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Schedule: Friday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 12:30-2 p.m., 3:30-4:30 p.m.); Saturday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, noon-1:30 p.m.), race, 3:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, 3-6 p.m.)
Distance: 300 miles (120 laps)
Last year: Regan Smith won the opener, holding off Brad Keselowski.
Nextera Energy Resources 250
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Schedule: Today, practice (Fox Sports 1, 1:30-2:30 p.m., 3:30-5 p.m.); Friday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 4:30-6 p.m.), race, 7:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, 7-10 p.m.)
Distance: 250 miles (100 laps)
Last year: Kyle Busch raced to the first of his seven 2014 series victories. He became the first driver to win Truck, ARCA, Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at the track.
Carquest Auto Parts Nationals
Track: Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Chandler, Ariz.
Schedule: Friday, qualifying; Saturday, qualifying (ESPN2, Sunday, 1-3 a.m.); Sunday, final eliminations (ESPN2, 6-8 p.m.)
Last year: Alexis DeJoria raced to her first Funny Car victory, beating Robert Hight in the final. Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, and Allen Johnson in Pro Stock.