He was so confident back on that misty morning in February as he sat in the backseat of a black Chevy pickup truck and rode through the infield at Daytona International Speedway. The season-opening Daytona 500 was only hours away, but already Tony Stewart was gazing toward distant horizons, at what he needed to do to win back-to-back championships.
"I feel really good about our team," Stewart said as the pickup truck ferried him to a pre-race meet-and-greet with heavies from Office Depot, his primary sponsor. "We've made some changes, but change can keep you fresh and on your toes. The key is being consistent and then getting hot at the right time."
Stewart did just that in 2011, when after failing to win a single race in the regular season he took five checkered flags in the Chase to beat Carl Edwards in the closest -- and most compelling -- championship battle in NASCAR history (Stewart and Edwards finished the season tied in points, but Stewart won on the tiebreaker of most wins.)
Seventeen races after Stewart uttered those words to SI in Daytona, he's in fine shape to advance to the Chase for the eighth time in nine years. Currently ninth in points, Stewart has two wins (which is two more than he had at this time last year) and already has seven top-five runs (he had nine in all of 2011). An electrical failure of a sensor caused him to finish 32nd last Saturday night at Kentucky, but before then he had three consecutive finishes of third or better and was fifth in the standings.
Now Stewart and the rest of the Cup series return to Daytona to begin the second half of the season -- the time when Stewart has traditionally heated up. A native of Columbus, Ind., Stewart grew up racing on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest, where the cars slide through the turns. When the temperatures rise in July and August and cause the NASCAR tracks to become sun-baked and slick, no driver on the circuit appears more comfortable sliding through the turns than Stewart, who excels at controlling a loose-handling car.
Which is one reason why he's my pick to take the checkers on Saturday night at Daytona. Since he made his debut at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 1996 in the Nationwide Series, Stewart has competed in 70 races at Daytona -- and won 16 of them (though he's never taken the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, the lone big race that remains on Stewart's to-do list). At times Stewart has positively dusted the field in the midsummer Daytona event. Back in 2005 he authored what was perhaps the most dominating race I've seen in my decade on the beat, leading all but nine of the race's 160 laps (94.4 percent) en route to reaching Victory Lane.
On Saturday night Stewart won't charge away from the field like he did in '05 -- the way the aerodynamic draft now works won't allow for that -- but I expect him to pass a familiar foe on the final lap to capture his third W of 2012.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Daytona:
A communication breakdown between Edwards and his crew chief Bob Osborne over when to pit for fuel ultimately cost them 17 spots at Kentucky. Edwards had to come in for fuel late and surrendered a likely third-place finish. After winding up 20th, he's now 11th in the standings and, if the Chase started today, he wouldn't qualify for NASCAR's playoff.
Edwards and Osborne had a long talk last Saturday night and Edwards has told me repeatedly that Osborne can be his crew chief for as long as Osborne wants. But the season is starting to slip away from the No. 99 team, so a strong performance at Daytona is critical. In 31 career starts at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, Edwards has never won. But he has finished in the top 10 in five of his last six Daytona races and Edwards' teammate, Matt Kenseth, won this year's Daytona 500.
"We have to be on it," Edwards says. "This to us is almost as if we're going to race for the championship for the next nine races. We've got to think that way and remember and respect the fact that we're not in the Chase right now. We're outside of it. We've got to go get it."
The Roush-Fenway cars should be fast on Saturday. And I think Edwards and Stewart will be nose-to-nose coming to the green flag. Edwards, after all, has a history of delivering stellar performances when it matters most.
Days after Kenseth, the points leader, announced that he would be leaving Roush-Fenway at season's end, he and his No. 17 team had another quietly solid run at Kentucky, where Kenseth finished seventh. This bodes well Kenseth's immediate future, because lame-duck drivers typically struggle in NASCAR.
After floundering on restrictor plate tracks in the early part of his career, Kenseth has developed into a strong plate racer. He came in second in this race in 2011 and he should be good for a top-five finish on Saturday night -- as long as he can avoid the Big One.
Though Harvick has only three top-five finishes in 2012 and has led only two laps in his last eight starts, he's sixth in the standings and appears to be a solid bet to qualify for the Chase for the third-straight season.
Harvick is an elite plate racer. He won this event after starting from the pole in 2010 and has finished seventh or better in four of his last five Daytona starts. Harvick has yet to reach Victory Lane this season, but he should contend for the checkers on Saturday night.
The angriest driver coming out of the season-opening 500 was probably Johnson, who was caught up in a wreck on only the second lap and finished 42nd. Teams spend two weeks at Daytona preparing for the Great American Race, so when your day ends less than four minutes after the green flag waves, it's an exquisitely frustrating experience.
This will be a team with an edge to it on Saturday night -- and the 48 team is currently on a roll. Over the last seven races no driver has scored more points than Johnson, who, over that stretch, has two wins, five top-five finishes, and has risen from eighth to third in the standings.
Yet in his last five starts at Daytona, Johnson has struggled, failing to come in higher than 20th. Expect that to change on the 2.5-mile tri-oval, as the hottest driver in NASCAR should be in the lead pack late as he charges for this third win of 2012.
Still, I like Stewart. This is just a hunch, but it says here his summer surge starts on Saturday night.