DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart hasn’t missed a beat since closing out last season’s title run, picking up a win Thursday in the first Daytona 500 qualifying race.
The three-time NASCAR champion, who locked up the title with a win in last year’s season finale, held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the first 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart, who is winless in 13 Daytona 500 starts, earned a second row starting spot in Sunday’s season opener.
“I think we showed the rest of the field we have a strong car with speed,” Stewart said. “I want those guys to see we have strength.”
The race ended under caution because of a vicious accident involving Danica Patrick on the final lap.
Patrick was hit by Aric Almirola as they raced along the backstretch. The contact sent her car sliding across the track and into an inside retaining wall. Her Chevrolet lifted off its wheels as it hit the SAFER barrier, which noticeably softened the blow.
She was not injured and will make her Daytona 500 debut on Sunday.
“It happened really quick,” she said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It felt pretty big. I don’t know what it looked like.”
Stewart, who owns Patrick’s car, said he tried to watch her race from his rearview mirror.
“The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job,” he said, adding that he’d only seen a replay of her accident.
“She’s trying to make the right decisions to gain the other drivers’ confidence right now.”
Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon were the drivers who raced their way into the 500.
Two-time winner Michael Waltrip wrecked as he tried to return to the track after a late pit stop. The accident eliminated him from Sunday’s race, but Gordon said after earning his spot that he’d be willing to sell his ride to Waltrip.
For Stewart, meanwhile, it was his first victory with new crew chief Steve Addington, who was hired to replace Darian Grubb after Stewart’s championship run. But Stewart nearly won Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, too, losing on a last-second pass by Kyle Busch.
“We took care of business today,” Stewart said.
The first race was far calmer than Saturday night’s Shootout, which showed that the two-car tandem had been successfully broken up by NASCAR. But the return to pack racing led to three multi-car accidents, and drivers worried about wrecking their 500 cars during the Thursday qualifying races.
There was one early accident in the first race, a five-car wreck that began when McDowell nudged David Gilliland, who turned directly into Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard.
“It’s a mess out there,” said Menard, who was also wrecked in the Shootout. “NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they’re trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it’s kind of hybrid pack racing and tandem racing. It’s causing a pretty unsafe situation.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.