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 is 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."