Stewart, the co-owner/driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, is the defending event winner and has won the Coke Zero 400 three times in the last five years. And, true to form, he is beginning to heat up along with the summer weather.
After a slow start to the season, Stewart has posted three top-five finishes in his last four races, including a runner-up at Loudon, N.H. on Sunday. In the process, he has jumped from 16th to ninth in points, as he seeks to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for a second consecutive year with SHR.
“When it starts getting hot and humid and the tracks get hot and slippery; that’s what we like,” said Stewart. “When guys can’t hold it wide open and they can’t sit there on high-grip tracks and they actually have to drive these things – that’s when we start getting fast.”
And nowhere does that apply more than Daytona, a track that has plenty of grip during the relatively cool weather for Speedweeks in February, but turns diabolically slippery during the steamy weather for the July race.
“Daytona is probably five times more of a handling race track in July than it is in February because of the heat,” said Stewart. “Even though it might cool off a little bit at night, there's so much heat in the race track that it just stays there and soaks in the asphalt.”
According to Stewart, handling is at a premium at the 2.5-mile Daytona course, unlike the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, the other track besides Daytona where NASCAR uses power-robbing restrictor plates to reduce the horsepower of the cars by roughly 40 percent.
“The difference between Daytona and Talladega is that Daytona is a handling track and Talladega is a speed track,” said Stewart. “Nobody has a bad-handling car at Talladega. They all drive well, whereas at Daytona, 90 percent of the battle is getting your car to handle well. It’s more of a chess match at Talladega, and that’s because the place was repaved just a couple of years ago. It’s such a smooth track. Daytona is old. It’s got bumps in it and the surface is worn out and it takes grip away, and that’s why the mechanical setup of the car is so much more important.”
Stewart the team co-owner also has to be hoping for a big night for teammate and 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, who drives the No. 39 SHR Chevy. Newman currently is 14th in points, although he is just 15 points out of 12th place.
But Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, admitted that at a restrictor-plate track, where you finish is pretty much a crapshoot.
“We go into every restrictor-plate race with high expectations of winning just like everybody does,” said Gibson. “You’re at the mercy of the guys around you. A guy could wreck five cars in front of you, and there’s nothing you can do. Luck plays a huge part in the restrictor plate races. I don’t know that you can really have too much of a strategy. I think we’re going to try and stay in small packs if we can and try to eliminate the big issues. That’s probably the best plan to have and, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. You just race hard, and we hope it works out for us.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.