With little to gain and everything to lose, Tony Stewart took a smart and conservative approach in the Budweiser Duel Thursday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, twin qualifying races that set the 43-car field for the season-opening Daytona 500.
Already having to start at the back of 56th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Stewart knew risking his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for a strong finish in his Budweiser Duel race offered little reward. An unapproved engine change on Saturday prior to qualifying meant Stewart would start at the back of the 43-car Daytona 500 field, no matter his finish in the Budweiser Duel. But Stewart still had to race and earn at least a top-15 finish to ensure that his new-for-2014-teammate, Kurt Busch, would make the Daytona 500.
The No. 41 Haas Automation team Busch drives for is brand new, with no owner points from the previous season. However, as the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Busch was eligible for the champion’s provisional, provided Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion whose most recent title came in 2011, didn’t use the champion’s provisional.
In order to avoid a doomsday scenario where Busch missed the Daytona 500 because there was no champion’s provisional to be had, Stewart knew he had to race to a solid finish his Budweiser Duel race. Stewart did just that, bringing home a clean Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet to a solid, 10th-place finish.
“The 41 car is in because we’re in,” said Stewart, who wears the dual hat of driver and owner at SHR, as he co-owns the four-car team with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas. “It’s hard to get four cars in, especially when you’ve got to race a couple of them in. Just to get through one qualifying race and know that you’re going to have all four cars in, that is a comforting feeling.”
Stewart’s ability to race in the Duel also provided valuable insight that he and his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil1 team can put toward Sunday.
“We were kind of in a position there where we didn’t want to take any chances and were where we needed to be at the beginning anyway,” said Stewart, who will make his 16th Daytona 500 start on Sunday. “There was no need to get in a hurry. We just stayed in line and rode around with the guys we were with for a while and let it shake out.”
Even with the champion’s provisional available, Busch made sure he didn’t need it. He finished third in his Budweiser Duel to slot him eighth for the Daytona 500.