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Stewart not intimidated in win

Driver with most wins last season holds off Earnhardt Sr. to take Bud Shootout.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- Tony Stewart didn't flinch.

Even with a win at stake and a rearview mirror filled with the black No. 3 Chevrolet, Stewart kept calm and even let off the gas.

"It is intimidating when you see Dale Earnhardt back there," he said. "But at the same time, I can't quit doing my job. It just means that he's got more tricks in his book than anybody else does there. I had to just pay attention to what he was doing behind me."

And that is where Stewart kept the seven-time Winston Cup champion in the closing moments of the Budweiser Shootout on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

The NASCAR driver with the most wins in 2000 -- he won six races in the No. 20 Pontiac -- Stewart took the lead from Earnhardt with two laps remaining and crossed the finish line ahead by 0.145 seconds.

The victory was Pontiac's first in the 23 years of the race for the previous season's pole winners, past winners of the event and a wild-card driver.

"To beat Dale Earnhardt on a restrictor plate track in his own element, where I would call him a specialist -- yeah, it means a lot," Stewart said. "But on the racetrack it didn't matter whether it was him or my teammate (Bobby Labonte) or whoever else."

The race quickened pulses with a record 19 lead changes among seven drivers in 70 laps. It was a far cry from the sleep-inducing affairs last season at Daytona.

"Last year I got out of the car after the Daytona 500 and I was pretty torn up about how the race went," said Earnhardt, who has won the Budweiser Shootout six times. "I made the comment that (NASCAR founder) 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."

The competitiveness was due in part to rules NASCAR implemented before the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in October. The rules, which increased the size of holes in restrictor plates and added a roof strip, were instituted to slow cars on the circuit's longest tracks.

Drivers used the race, lengthened this year from 25 laps, to gain driving experience with the changes.

"I learned a lot about how to maneuver around with these new rules and what's going on," said Rusty Wallace, who finished third. "I think I learned a couple things from Dale, watching him and what he was doing."

Five Fords finished in the top 10.

But that didn't stop Jeff Burton, who was fifth, from expressing concern.

He and Dale Jarrett (fourth) are among those in the Ford camp who believe their cars are at a significant aerodynamic disadvantage. They said they could get to the front Sunday but couldn't stay there.

"I hate to start the year off complaining, but we're just slow," Burton said. "There's not a Ford in the field that had a chance to win, and that's just the way it is. I'm not complaining or whining; that's just the fact."

Four of the top five cars -- Stewart's Pontiac, Earnhardt's Chevrolet, Bill Elliott's Dodge and Wallace's Ford -- were impounded by NASCAR and taken to the Lockheed wind tunnel in Atlanta for testing at 8 this morning.

The cars will be returned to the teams by midnight.

NASCAR president Mike Helton insisted the move did not suggest rules changes will be made before the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

"I don't know if there's a problem there," Helton said. "I think it's too early to tell."

All but three cars were running at the end of the caution-free race.

The lone Dodge, driven by Daytona 500 pole-winner Elliott, was competitive in its first race. The 1988 Winston Cup champion started 13th, was 10th after 20 laps and finished ninth.

"We learned quite a bit," Elliott said. "The biggest thing we needed to do was run this thing and run the whole race. I think we're real encouraged. We've got a pretty good car to work with."

* * *

DAYTONA 500: 1 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway.

TICKETS: Call (904) 253-7223 or check http://www.daytonaintlspeedway.com.

TODAY: Winston Cup, Craftsman Trucks, IROC practice; Winston Cup second-round qualifying.

* * *

COMING FRIDAY: The Times' annual auto racing special section,featuring a look at NASCAR's new TV deal.

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