DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Even as Tony Stewart emerged from his car as the unquestioned master of the nighttime at Daytona, he had a hollow feeling of shortcoming.
Even after a superb solo breakup of the strongest tag team in restrictor-plate racing, even after his fourth Coke Zero 400 win in the past eight years on Saturday night, he seemed unfulfilled, and said so.
"I'd trade 'em all for one Daytona 500," he said. Overall, "This makes 18 wins at Daytona. We just haven't got the right one yet."
With those words, Stewart moved to the long-troubled echelon of the late Dale Earnhardt as a driver who seems able to win every event at this place but its biggest. Stewart's 18th win at Daytona now places him second all-time at the track behind Earnhardt's 34.
But Earnhardt didn't win the 500 until his 20th try. Stewart has come up short 14 times. And now he has publicly invited Earnhardt's old gorilla onto his back.
It weighs so heavily already that Stewart shrugged off, and treated as a simple task, his outfoxing and overpowering of the powerful team-drafting tandem of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who had dominated most of the evening, as they have in all three plate races so far this season.
On the final lap, with Kenseth and Biffle locked together and threatening to blow past him, Stewart "just tried to get the 17 and the 16 pulled apart," he said. "Once we got them pulled apart, that gave us a run on the outside."
As Kenseth and Biffle struggled to reconnect, classic late-race Daytona bedlam erupted behind Stewart, and the Roush Ford teammates wound up jostling each other a bit, shoved by others.
Biffle's car broke loose, and a 15-car pileup ensued, all in Stewart's mirrors as he came to the checkered flag.
Kenseth escaped the melee to finish third, but was heartsick afterward. He'd won the Daytona 500 in February, but since then, all of his and Biffle's power on the plate tracks had yielded frustrating results.
Brad Keselowski had slipped past them at the finish at Talladega in May, and Kenseth blamed himself. This time he tried a different tactic, and Stewart thwarted that, and so he was questioning himself every which way.
"You always second-guess your moves, but I feel like we had one of the fastest cars all three [plate] races this year," he said, in something of an understatement. "I am incredibly disappointed. My team deserved to be down there holding the hardware, and I kind of let them down."
At Talladega, "we got beat because I didn't do a good enough job dragging the brake and keeping my teammate with me," Kenseth said. "This time I was going to make sure I kept Greg with me, and did a really good job for a lap and a quarter [of the two laps after the final restart -- which wasn't a green-white-checkered, but finished in the regulation 160 laps]."
"We were locked on," Kenseth said. "Somehow Greg got off me just a little bit, but Tony, I think, was separated [from a drafting partner] as well."
I am incredibly disappointed. My team deserved to be down there holding the hardware, and I kind of let them down.
”-- Matt Kenseth
Stewart was and wasn't separated. He'd gotten such a drafting push from Kasey Kahne that when Kahne got shuffled back, Stewart still looked like his Chevrolet had been shot out of a giant cannon.
Solo, he was able to side-draft Kenseth and Biffle enough to separate them by a couple of car lengths.
"Once we got 'em pulled apart, I think Matt tried to back up to reconnect with Greg and carry that momentum," Stewart said.
Sure enough, "because of the Talladega experience, I tried to drag the brake and get back to Greg," Kenseth said.
But Stewart was doing some anticipatory brake-dragging himself.
"I tried to back up to Matt to make sure they didn't get a huge run on us," Stewart said. "They were coming on the outside in [Turns] 3 and 4, and when the last wreck happened there, we just happened to be fortunate enough to be leading still."
Fortunate enough? Make that masterful enough. Stewart worked the draft as masterfully as the man whose monkey he has inherited, Earnhardt, did here.
With his third win of this season, Stewart has now tied Keselowski for presumptive top seed in the Chase. That's a solid step toward a Stewart repeat of last year's championship, which would be his fourth Cup title.
Earnhardt amassed seven championships before he won the Daytona 500. So the planets keep aligning for a Stewart echo of what became known as "Dale's Sad Tale."
For more than a decade, the traditional question riding Earnhardt's back was, "When you gonna win the Daytona 500, Dale?"
Now, clearly, it becomes, "When you gonna win the Daytona 500, Tony?"
With Earnhardt, it got to the point where he had no idea, and concluded, the year before he won it, that "I ain't supposed to win the damn thing."
Stewart isn't there yet, but he's getting there. Three years ago here, he said he'd be willing to "cross the finish line upside down and on fire" to win the 500.
Saturday night, he said he'd trade every Daytona win so far -- meaning he'd give up second place all-time behind Earnhardt here -- just to shrug away the gorilla that tormented Earnhardt so.