Stewart Wins Daytona Shootout

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Budweiser Shootout was billed as a quick dash-for-cash for past winners of the special non-points race and pole winners from the previous season. In the past, many drivers and teams had complained the race was too short so this year’s race distance was bumped up to 70 laps.

There weren’t a whole lot of disappointed fans in the stands on Sunday afternoon at the Daytona International Speedway when 18 cars and stars from the Winston Cup Series did battle in the new format of the Budweiser Shootout.

What those fans witnessed was Tony Stewart hold off a fierce charge down the stretch to grab his first Daytona victory over the greatest driver in the history of Daytona in Dale Earnhardt who finished second.

"Me and Dale ran well really well today and I’m going to partner up with him next Sunday," Stewart said after winning the race and the $200,000 purse. "It was a great day and what a way to start the season with a win at Daytona."

Stewart’s team was pleased too.

"Tony’s a great race car driver," said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac. "We’ve been learning a lot about these restrictor plate races, and we’re getting better at them. Tony did what he had to do to win. We had a good car, but we’ve got a better one for the 500. We’re very excited."

Earnhardt said he tried to get by, but Stewart was simply too strong.

"It was exciting," said Earnhardt, just after coming up short of his seventh career Shootout victory. "I got by Tony, but he had too strong a car and he got back by me. I tried to pass him back but I just couldn’t do it. We pitted too early and our tires were worn out there at the end.

"Rusty drafted with us and we kept working and trying to do the best we could to move up a notch," he continued. "I got a run on Tony down the backstretch, and at Daytona you really don’t want to have to wait until the last lap. I had to make a move and that’s just the breaks of the game with these restrictor plates and these aerodynamic rules we’ve got now. You just have to take it when you can get it and that’s what I did. We took our shot but Tony was too strong."

Stewart seemed almost in awe to be standing in victory lane at the end of the wild race.

"We’ve learned to play the restrictor plate game, but I hate these things," Stewart said. "I’ll tell you, when you’ve got Dale Earnhardt behind you, you’ve got to pay attention to what he’s doing. He’s won so many of these things down here. We really worked well with Dale Jr. today, and that helped us tremendously. We really ran well and ran up front all day. We’re excited to win this."

Rounding out the top-five were Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton.

"Dale and I went into turn three there and you couldn't tell who was going to win the race
right at that point," Wallace said. "It was Stewart and then it was Dale and then it was maybe me who needed to get on the high side, but I tell you, I kept guarding the top of the race track and that was the best place to do it. My spotter Roger Penske and everybody was helping me because it was very tempting to go to the bottom and I kept staying to the top and it worked out for us."

One driver expected to be a player in the victory was Bill Elliott who won the pole for the Daytona 500 on Saturday, but could only mange to finish 12th in the Budweiser Shootout.

Rounding out the top-10 was Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Mike Skinner.

If there was something clearly obvious from the drop of the green flag, it would have to be the fact the aerodynamic rules used at Daytona for the first time made the racing a lot closer than both Winston Cup races here last year. After he started second, Earnhardt wasted little time in taking the lead as he moved past pole winner Ken Schrader by the time the pack hit the backstretch for the first time.

Unlike in year’s past at Daytona, the first few laps looked like a race at Talladega with cars jockeying for position three-wide rather than the usual follow-the-leader racing.

Before the race reached the 15-lap mark, two drivers had to make pit stops a little too early for their liking and were dropped from contention. Ted Musgrave had his problem just as the field was about to take the green, with Schrader coming into the pits not long afterwards.

Jeremy Mayfield had engine problems later that sent his No. 12 Ford to the garage area a little earlier than he would have preferred.

As part of the new race format, drivers were required to make one pit stop at some point in the race that couldn’t end under caution unlike all other Winston Cup races.

On lap 25, Earnhardt led a pack of six cars into the pits for their mandatory stop, though Earnhardt and those other drivers would fall a lap down momentarily when Stewart flashed by because he hadn’t made his trip to the pits yet along with the other leaders.

Like he’s done so many times before at Daytona, ‘The Intimidator’ used his drafting skills to his advantage by hanging around the lead draft before the others pitted.

After everybody had made their stops, it was Martin’s No. 6 Ford at the head of the class with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and defending Winston Cup champion Labonte just behind. Perhaps most importantly, the cars that had pitted on lap 25 had found their way back into the lead draft.

With 10 laps to go, the race was living up to its "Shootout" name as Stewart led Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt Sr., with Wallace fourth and Jarrett fifth. Things were looking very similar at lap 65 with Stewart still leading the Earnhardts with five circuits remaining.

Thanks to the swift driving of Stewart, it would turn out to be a lead he wouldn’t relinquish before driving to his first Daytona victory.

The next on-track competitive action for the Winston Cup Series will take place on Thursday when the field for the Daytona 500 is completely set in a pair of 125-mile qualifying races. So far, only two drivers – pole winner Bill Elliott and second-place Stacy Compton – are secured a starting position in the "Great American Race."

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