DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. He had just lost a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire showdown against one of NASCAR's best drivers in the sport's biggest event.
Yet, shockingly, when the Daytona 500 was over, Tony Stewart said he was ''tickled'' to finish second.
Had one of stock-car racing's most fiery drivers had a personality transplant? Not really.
Instead, his reaction was the result of two indisputable realities the sport carries into 2004: First, there's never any shame in losing to Dale Earnhardt Jr., and second, there's never any shame in finishing a NASCAR race in second place.
''I'm not ashamed at all,'' Stewart said. ''I'm just flat tickled to death.''
In the old days, some people considered second place nothing better than the ''first loser.'' But under NASCAR's scoring system even the new, supposedly better system second place is pretty much as good as first.
Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart smiles as he answers questions after a news conference in Charlotte, N.C., in this Jan. 23, 2003 photo. Stewart said he was ``tickled'' to finish second in the Daytona 500 on Sunday Feb. 15, 2004.
AP Photo/Harold Hinson, Lowes Motor Speedway
After the first of 26 races before the scores are rejigged to give the top 10 drivers the best chance of winning, Earnhardt has 185 points and Stewart has 180. Earnhardt earned 10 more points for winning the race, 180-170, but Stewart collected an additional five for leading the most laps.
The fact that winning barely means more in the standings than finishing second is among the conundrums NASCAR was trying to change when it revamped its scoring system this year, giving race winners an additional five points. The idea was to reward winning a bit more, especially after last year, when Matt Kenseth won the series despite winning only one race and Ryan Newman won eight times but finished sixth in the standings.
''But it was a delicate balance,'' NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said of the long-considered decision to retool the scoring system. ''We wanted winning to mean a lot. But consistency is still very important in this sport.''
Indeed, if Stewart finishes second every week, he would win the Nextel Cup going away. Hunter said nobody at NASCAR was shocked or upset to have the runner-up coming in acting as though he'd won.
''He tried everything he could to win that race,'' Hunter said. ''When he didn't, he came in, said he tried his hardest, and was happy with second. When guys come in and say they're happy with a top-15 finish, then I think we've got a problem.''
For Stewart's part, the second-place finish is a good sign, as was the week that preceded it.
Known far and wide for his run-ins in the garage and flare-ups with NASCAR officials, Stewart stayed well below the radar all week. He did so even on the day before the race, when John Andretti knocked him into the wall during practice and forced his team to make extensive repairs.
What might have resulted in a fight in the garage barely caused a blip. Stewart took a dig at Andretti after the race ''they tried to wreck us for the second straight day,'' he said but didn't let that incident spoil the week.
In fact, the week might have ended up being even sweeter because of the accident. It was just one more obstacle Stewart was able to overcome.
He went from running a mediocre seventh in the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race and finishing near last place in pole qualifying to nearly winning the Daytona 500.
He also found that his partnership with Earnhardt is still intact. The two team up together at Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor-plate tracks where finding a dependable drafting partner is almost as important as the strength of the car.
For the fourth time in three years at those tracks, Stewart finished second behind Earnhardt. He figures the time will come soon when he'll walk away the winner.
''Is he beatable? Everybody is beatable on the right day,'' Stewart said. ''They've got something that's working for them. It's a matter of time before these other teams find it, too. When they do, you'll see him getting beat.''
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