DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If Sunday's Budweiser Shootout is an indication of what to expect in next Sunday's Daytona 500, then NASCAR's fears of another boring superspeedway race may be over.
Last year, after Dale Earnhardt criticized the Daytona 500 for being an unexciting race that no one would want to see again, and the media followed suit with its own criticism, NASCAR officials came up with a new superspeedway aero package designed as much to reduce speeds as to increase competition.
The Budweiser Shootout was only 70 laps compared to 200 and there were only 18 cars compared to 43 for the 500, but the competition was back.
After 19 lead changes among seven drivers, Tony Stewart and the senior Earnhardt put on an old-fashioned drafting battle that saw them swap the lead twice in the last three laps before Stewart kept the seven-time Winston Cup champion at bay in the final trip around Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile oval.
"As much as I hated to block him, I had to do it because that's what everybody tries to do," said Stewart. "I kept watching him, seeing how he was planning on setting me up for a pass, and I did what I had to do to keep him from doing it.
"That's still what I hate about restrictor-plate racing. I think this blocking stuff is dangerous. Other than that, this was the most fun restrictor-plate race I've been able to win. I watched guys in front of me and it looked like an old dirt race. The guy going in on the bottom would slide up the racetrack in front and the guy that was getting passed for the lead would turn it back down and drive back under him driving off the corner. It was something that I don't think anybody has seen here for a long time."
Earnhardt, after acknowledging that he and Stewart made a lot of contact in their tense struggle, said the difference was that the winner had fresher tires. Earnhardt pitted early and took only right-side tires, while Stewart pitted 20 laps later and took on four tires.
Rather than express his disappointment in losing, Earnhardt seemed more concerned with praising NASCAR's new aero package.
"I think you saw a better race and that's what it's all about," he said. "Last year, you know I got out of the car after the Daytona 500 and I was pretty torn up about how the race went. I made the comment that Bill France Sr. was probably turning over in his grave about that kind of racing. Well, I'd say he'd be jumping up and down this year about this kind of racing."
What was surprising, both to drivers and spectators, was the way in which cars could drop three or four positions in a lap, and then make them back up nearly as quickly.
With only 18 laps remaining, Stewart lost the lead when he went high on the 31-degree banking and was shuffled back to fifth place behind Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and the Earnhardts, Dale and Dale Jr. But by powering his way along the bottom of the track, the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac regained the lead in four laps.
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