Junior wows Stewart

Associated Press
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) celebrated with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. in Victory Lane after winning Saturday's Budweiser Shootout.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Dale Earnhardt was widely regarded as the best restrictor-plate racer in NASCAR history -- the one guy who could see the air, work the draft, slice his way through the field and always a threat to make the winning move.

Could his son be even better?

Tony Stewart thought so Saturday night, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. used a late pass to snatch the exhibition Budweiser Shootout away from the two-time series champion. The victory ended a nearly two-year winless streak.

"It's hard to beat Dale Jr.," Stewart said. "He's one of the best restrictor-plate drivers there's ever been. He learned a lot from his dad, and I'm not sure he's not better than his dad."

Debatable? Yes. Out of the question? Maybe not. Even Junior acknowledged his success at NASCAR's most famous track.

"Daytona is a special place. How many times has an Earnhardt won here?" he asked. "Daddy won 30-something. I won, I don't know? Eleven races? That's a lot."

After the elder Earnhardt was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior had seven wins in the next 15 plate races -- including the 2004 Daytona 500.

It earned him the reputation as a driver only capable of winning plate races, something that bugged him quite a bit.

"There was a time when it seemed like all I could win was plate races, and I didn't want to take credit for it, because it seemed like it's all I ever was gonna be -- a plate-race winner. But now, I have embraced it."

He should. With a new Hendrick Motorsports ride, Earnhardt has a chance to win next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 and continue building on his legacy.

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