DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As the leader in the closing laps of Sunday's Budweiser Shootout, Tony Stewart was prepared for all the moves used against him by the master of restrictor-plate racing, Dale Earnhardt.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a third generation driver, tried everything his father taught him in the final five laps. Nothing worked.
"You wait for them to make their moves, then you make your countermoves," Stewart said. "Those were the same tricks his father used to play."
With Stewart's Pontiac out front and seemingly unbeatable in his second consecutive victory in the all-star race, Earnhardt was more concerned with protecting second place during a final lap charge by Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt won the photo finish as Stewart watched from his rearview mirror.
"The entire time I was behind Tony, I never once had the opportunity to pass him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Never. I never had the opportunity so I'm kind of disappointed that the guy up front has such an easy ride."
Stewart, who won $200,955, had a hard time convincing anybody his victory wasn't easy. He led two times for a race-best 31 laps, including the final 24.
"The biggest thing was working with (Earnhardt) Junior to get to the front," Stewart said. "We both knew we had pretty good cars here. With five or six laps to go, he was going to do whatever he could to win.
"He may have 'Junior' behind his name, but he's got as much skill and talent as his father did," Stewart said. "I was conscious of what he was doing. I knew he'd have to pull something out of his hat to do it."
Earnhardt Jr. tried everything his father taught him.
"You could trail-brake a little bit and drop behind him so you could get a head of steam for a pass," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Every time I backed off, Tony did too. It was like he knew what we were doing.
"Basically, the race was over with five laps to go. I couldn't make a pass on him."
"That's what his father tried to do to me here last year," Stewart said.
Earnhardt Sr., who was killed on the final lap of last year's Daytona 500, won 11 races featuring restrictor plates since NASCAR mandated them in 1988. The plates reduce the amount of gas and air into the engines so speeds are restricted by about 30mph at Daytona and Talladega, Ala., for safety reasons.
A new rules package that removed some of last year's aerodynamic devices that created three-wide, 10-deep packs of traffic allowed drivers to break up into smaller packs. The lead pack had five cars in it, while the trailing pack of 15 cars was about 100 yards behind.
"With last year's package, I felt like the car was driving me," Stewart said. "I feel like with this package, I was a little more in control. The old way was like playing Keno. It was pulling numbers out of the hat. It's nice to control your own destiny. You can race guys more one-on-one. Now there's a little more individuality into it."
The problem with the old package is it doesn't seem to foster competitive finishes. During the entire 1990s - a total of 40 restrictor plate races - Jimmy Spencer was the only driver to make a competitive pass for the victory on the final lap.
Sunday's race provided a hint to expect the same for next week's Daytona 500.
"Up front is the place to be," Gordon said.
Since Fords weren't competitive in Saturday's time trials for the Daytona 500 or in the all-star race, NASCAR late Sunday said the Fords would be allowed to trim a quarter-inch off the top of their rear spoilers to reduce their drag. That means the rear spoiler for the Ford Taurus will be 6 inches, while Chevrolet's will be 6 1/4 inches and Dodge's and Pontiac's will remain at 6 1/2 inches.
Stewart averaged 181.295 mph and he won by three car lengths.
The race was open to the pole winners from the 2001 season and to former winners of the all-star event. It's considered the unofficial kickoff to the stock car-racing season, but it doesn't count toward the Winston Cup Series championship.
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