DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Tony Stewart, the three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, captured his 17th career victory at Daytona International Speedway with his triumph today in the first of two 50-mile heats in the Gatorade Duel.
Stewart finished ahead of runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place Marcos Ambrose
in a race that was marred by Danica Patrick's scary crash on the last lap.
"You never want to see anyone lose a car in a crash,'' Stewart said of his driver, Patrick, who despite a 16th place finish in the Duel was still locked into the 43-car grid for the 54th Daytona 500 as an exempt driver among the top 35 in points.
"The good thing is that she's OK and she's still in the 500.''
Patrick was sent careening into a SAFER barrier on the inside retaining wall when Jamie McMurray bumped Aric Almirola in a three-wide draft coming out of Turn 2. Almirola then side-swiped Patrick, sending her No. 10 car veering off course at full speed into the inside retaining wall, where it hit with a heavy impact. Patrick climbed out of her demolished car, unhurt.
"It felt pretty big,'' Patrick said of her crash. "I felt like I was having a solid race. We were just looking to finish, to be honest.''
Michael McDowell credited the drafting support of Trevor Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 winner, for his fourth-place finish which helped McDowell clinch his second career start in the 500 after he clinched one of two transfer spots. "Without him, I definitely wouldn't be in the Daytona 500,'' McDowell said.
The other spot went to privateer owner Robby Gordon, who praised the hard work of his low-budget team which numbered 10 employees (7-8 on his NASCAR crew) but took to task the rule that awarded Terry Labonte a past champions provisonal spot.
``Making the Daytona 500 is the big event for NASCAR racing,'' Gordon said. "When you look at it three guys [among the non-exempt drivers] make it on pure speed. Obviously Terry takes a past champion [provisional], which I still disagree with that. It should be based if you're with that team, not just because you won a championship and you're in, because it takes a spot from teams that are working really hard to get into the Daytona 500.
"Rules are rules, and we made it into the Daytona 500 by racing our way in and I'm proud of my guys, and proud of my team and proud to be racing in the Daytona 500.''