It took Tony Stewart just 13 laps to lead a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event for the first time as a driver/owner, and the veteran went on to claim a solid third-place finish in his first outing at the wheel of the #14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet.
Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway was a chance to Stewart to test the mettle of his new interest, Stewart-Haas Racing, and it proved to be a successful one as he led laps 13-16 en route
to chasing winner Kevin Harvick and runner-up Jamie McMurray home at the end of 78 tours of the Florida superspeedway.
“I'll take that for a debut night,” three-time Shootout winner Stewart admitted, “It wasn't the prettiest third-place, but we were in the right spot at the right time. We know what we need to work on for the Daytona 500, and now we have a good start on it.”
Stewart's third-place finish was his fourth consecutive top three in the Shootout and his eighth appearance in the top five in ten runs in the traditional non-points opener.
“I had fun all night,” he said, “I was real comfortable with the car, and I'm excited because I know our 500 car is better than this one. I think we know what areas we need to work on on Wednesday and what we will concentrate on on Thursday. That will give us a really big gauge for what want to do on Friday and Saturday. I'm excited about it. We have a direction and we got the first one out of the way - everybody has the cobwebs knocked out of them. It was an awesome debut for Old Spice and Office Depot.”
Stewart managed to dodge seven accidents during the 78-lap race, which was extended three laps past its scheduled distance due to a green-white-chequered finish, and made a stirring drive during the final green flag run.
After David Stremme and Greg Biffle were involved in an accident on lap 74, Stewart, who was lying outside the top ten, pitted for four fresh tyres and restarted the race in 15th. NASCAR officials then announced that the race would conclude with a green-white-chequered finish so, when the green flag came out for the final time on lap 76, Stewart knew he had only two laps to get to the front.
During the two-lap sprint around the 2.5-mile oval, he managed to pick up no fewer than twelve spots - and dodge a final lap accident on the backstretch that involved four other cars.
“We restarted in the back on that last run and got near the front in a couple of laps,” Stewart reported, “We got that run and we were able to pick which line we wanted. We got the one out of three lines that moved, so it worked out for us.”