Tony Stewart hopes to continue Summer of Love in Daytona

Tony Stewart is the Sultan of Summer.

He will shoot for his fifth win at a Cup July race at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night when he competes in the Coke Zero 400.

That would tie defending champion Stewart with David Pearson, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, for most victories in the mid-summer race.

But February always brings a winter's chill. He is 0-15 in Daytona 500s, including an abbreviated outing earlier this year after a crash on Lap 34. Stewart's closest run came in 2008 when Ryan Newman — now his teammate — passed him for the lead on the final lap.

"I'd trade a couple of these [summer] races for a Daytona 500," Stewart said he said during a recent promotional tour for the race. "There's definitely a lot more pressure in February than there is here in July. You still want to win at Daytona no matter when it is, but there's a lot more pressure going into the 500 than the 400."

Despite the forlorn February tales, Stewart has been solid in the unpredictable super-speedway frenzy of Daytona. His 19 victories at Daytona is second only to Dale Earnhardt Sr. And he did rack up another one in February when Stewart won a Nationwide race marred by a last-lap crash in which debris flew into the grandstands. Stewart has ruled the Nationwide circuit at Daytona with seven victories in nine years.

But Stewart won't be in the Nationwide race Friday night. His focus is on the Cup side — big-time — after a horrible start. Stewart has been able to rally in recent weeks, including a victory at Dover. Currently 16th, Stewart is in the mix of drivers contending for a wild-card spot, or possibly more.

"We feel like we're starting to get thing turned around and get some momentum," he said. "We're starting to get that feel in the shop like we're starting to gain on it.

"It's just a process of eliminating variables. I'm really proud of our shop and our organization sticking with this. It's been a hard spring for us.

"You live in the moment, You know as a veteran you're probably going to get it turned around but there's never a guarantee that you're ever going to find it."

It's been a bit of a rough go again lately after finishing 20th at Kentucky and 28th at Sonoma. But a previous run of four consecutive top 7 finishes, including the Dover victory, has strengthened Stewart's chances of making the Chase.

And what would a NASCAR championship run be without one of the most ornery guys in the garage?

Stewart will make another run Saturday night, hoping to avoid the usual cars-going-bump-in-the-night scenario.

"It hasn't changed here," he said. "It's the same as it's been since I came into the sport. You can have the fastest car and you're not going to drive away from the field. It's not going to happen."

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

Ragan's full range

David Ragan doesn't win a lot of races. That's understandable, given the challenges of driving for one of the teams that isn't one of the NASCAR superpowers.

But he certainly has found his niche on the super-speedways driving the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, where Ragan has two Sprint Cup victories.

The first came in the 2011 Coke Zero at Daytona International Speedway while he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing. He followed that up with a victory at Talladega earlier this season, finishing 1-2 with his Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland.

But there's the flip side of the Daytona monster. He finished 35th in the 2013 Daytona 500 after crashing. He got into a wreck in 2012 on the first lap of the Daytona 500, and in 2011 he missed a chance at a Daytona 500 victory when he was black-flagged for passing too early on a restart. Obviously miffed, Ragan slammed his steering wheel three times with his fist.

So is it strategy, or a coin flip?

"All I can say is a lot of it is a gut decision," Ragan said during a teleconference on Tuesday. "You can't sit here on a Tuesday or even on a Thursday or Friday and have a plan and just stick to it. You've got to make decisions as the flow of the race changes. If they have a big wreck early in the race and there's only 25 cars running, then your strategy changes. If there's 40 cars still running at the end of the race with 50 laps to go, your strategy changes again.

"You've just got to know all the factors and rely on your crew chief and your spotter, and myself and my judgment, and try to make the best decision you can.

"I feel like my chances are as good as any at making the right moves in the closing laps of the race."

Hamlin is ready

Denny Hamlin has been cleared for takeoff again. After performing tests on Monday, doctors gave Hamlin the green light to compete in Daytona. Hamlin suffered a concussion in Sunday's crash at Kentucky Speedway and then saw doctors in Indianapolis Monday morning.

Hamlin missed four races after suffering a back injury in a crash at Fontana and his chances of making the Chase are shot, leading to speculation that he may shut it down and have back surgery sooner than later (in the off-season).

"Definitely have to proceed on," Hamlin said at Kentucky. "We're just going to try to win races, and that's what my job is for the rest of the year — to try to win and do the best I can for my sponsors and my team."

Double-dipping

Five Cup drivers will be in the mix in Friday's Subway Firecracker 250 . Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth will be in the starting grid, although they will not be eligible for any points as Cup regulars.

 

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