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Stewart pleased despite tough loss

2/21/2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- All of the ingredients were there for a Tony Stewart blowup at the Daytona 500: One part most laps led, two parts getting shuffled back at the end to lose the race, and add a pinch of getting nudged by Jimmie Johnson into another car with two laps to go and just about everyone thought a knuckle sandwich was grilling inside that No. 20 Chevrolet of Stewart's.

Alas, all that emerged was a relative cupcake of an on-track tap after the race.

After exiting his car, Stewart was even confronted by Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. But instead of yelling or shoving, Stewart walked away. He met NASCAR officials and Johnson in the Cup Series trailer for a post-race pow-wow and emerged in good spirits.

Asked what transpired inside, he responded: "We were trading cooking secrets."

For all the heat Stewart takes for his history of temper problems, one thing is undeniable: He is a true racer, and when he races well -- win or lose -- he appreciates every moment on the track. That's why, when he felt Johnson was nudging him, he didn't get angry. He got competitive. And that's why, when he lost the Daytona 500 after leading the most laps of anyone for the second straight year, he didn't act disappointed. He was, as he put it, "stoked."

"I think we ran about as good a race as we possibily could have run," Stewart said. "At least we had a car that was good enough to lead laps. You don't lead laps like that if you don't have a good race car. I'm just happy these guys did a great job over the winter getting this thing ready for the 500. We got a good start to the season. I'm ready to go."

It was a somewhat surprising response from Stewart. And not just because of the altercation with Johnson. That entanglement actually gave Stewart a chance to show how talented a driver he is when he saved his car from spinning while running three wide. And though he did bump Johnson at the end of the race, the two are friends and called it a done deal.

"There was no retaliation," Johnson said of the bumping. "We were wheel to wheel and it almost spun me out and I ran back into him. It was just one of those deals."

Stewart wasn't even upset that it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., his long-time drafting partner at Daytona and the guy he helped push to victory last year, that snatched Stewart's lead late in the race and set him up for the free fall that sent him to a seventh-place finish after leading 107 of 203 laps.

"I left the door open just a little bit and he hit it," said Stewart, more in admiration for the move than resentment.

Junior said he did feel some obligation to help Stewart because Stewart did provide a little help for him last year. Stewart was in need of that help late in the race with Jeff Gordon putting on some heat. So, under caution, Junior relayed a message to Stewart telling him to drop down to the inside lane on the restart and Junior promised he would drop down right behind Stewart and push him past Gordon.

That's exactly what he did, too. But the help was short-lived. With Stewart and Gordon racing side-by-side, Junior saw a hole open in between the two when he pushed Stewart ahead. Quickly, he darted for clean air and took the lead for himself.

Stewart shuffled back and got into that three-way battle with Johnson and Scott Riggs that rattled him back and forth between the cars and finally landed him behind both in seventh place.

But Stewart wasn't angry at Junior. And he wasn't angry at Johnson. He wasn't even angry at himself for leading the most laps once again in the Daytona 500 and coming up short.

In fact, his team owner, Joe Gibbs, sounded more in the doldrums than Stewart.

"I think it's a big disappointment for all of us and we're proud of him," Gibbs said. "He had a great car and a great effort. That was for all the marbles, a lot of money and a lot pride. It hurts to come up short."

For his part, Stewart was too juiced from the frenetic pace of the closing laps and the hard run he gave everyone on the track thanks to a well-balanced and powerful rig. He was disappointed with not winning, and his face revealed moments of frustration with Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus altercations, but in the end it was a grin that adorned his face when he spoke.

"It's hard leading sometimes like that," he said. "We had a great car to lead all those laps that we led. I'm so stoked about the way these guys brought this car here. It was an awesome race car."

And a pretty awesome week for Stewart. He won a qualifying race on Thursday and followed that up with his first-ever Busch Grand National victory on Saturday -- where, incidentally, he got punted into the grass and made a stunning save reminiscent of the late Dale Earnhardt's famous "Pass in the Grass" here during an International Race of Champions event.

On Sunday night, Stewart made it clear that he wished he could have punctuated the visit with his first-ever Daytona 500 championship. Though he failed, he certainly put everyone on notice that his team has come out firing and his hopes are very much alive for a much more important championship: the Nextel Cup.

"You always expect that Tony's team is going to be ready to compete," 500 winner Jeff Gordon said. "And he showed it once again today. He had a fast car."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.