Daytona Beach, Fla. — Daytona needed a competitive race, and got it in Sunday's Budweiser Shootout.
Tony Stewart outdueled Dale Earnhardt at the head of a 14-car pack to win the made-for-TV race for last year's NASCAR pole-winners.
More important, with complaints about last year's sleeper of a Daytona 500 still remembered, the stock car sanctioning body's new aerodynamic package turned the 70-lap, 175-mile event into an exciting show for 75,000 spectators.
"I think it made it better," Stewart said of the aero changes that included a metal strip across the top of the car and an extension on the rear wing. The new package slows the cars by up to 10 mph and adds considerable drag.
"It put a little more of the driving and our fate back into our hands," Stewart said. "Guys had to let up and even brake at times."
Earnhardt took the top spot from Stewart as the two drove into the third turn on the 21/2-mile oval with two laps remaining. But Stewart's Pontiac was too strong, sweeping past Earnhardt's famed No. 3 Chevrolet on the next lap the last of 19 lead changes among seven drivers.
Stewart, whose Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte won the Winston Cup championship last season, showed he is likely to be a force in 2001.
He led four times for a race-high 36 laps and pulled away to beat seven-time champ Earnhardt by 0.145-seconds about two car-lengths.
The green flag stayed out for the entire race and 16 of the 18 starters including three former Shootout winners and one wild card selection from second round qualifying leaders were running at the end.
Stewart, who earned $202,722 from the $900,000 purse, averaged 181.036 mph.
The race, which was extended this year from a 25-lap sprint and is now considered a true preview of the 500-mile race, might have been decided on the 25th lap anyway when a handful of drivers, including Earnhardt, made their one scheduled pit stop. Stewart and most of the other competitors waited until lap 45 for their stops.
"I wanted to wait to the last lap to make my move on him, but it was the first move I got on him all day," Earnhardt said. "With this aero package, you've got to take it when you can get it.
"His car was strong and his tires were fresher," the 1998 Daytona 500 winner added. "I don't know if that (early stop) was the right call or not. If I could have stayed side-by-side with him, I could have raced him. But I just couldn't do that."
Asked about the handling of the cars, Earnhardt said, "I think you saw a better race. NASCAR works hard to keep everybody even and they've done a good job."
Mike Helton, NASCAR's president, was beaming following the race.
"I thought it was a good show," Helton said.
Fords driven by Rusty Wallace, defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton finished third through fifth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte.
Other drivers in the lead pack at the end were Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Mike Skinner, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Joe Nemechek and Steve Park.
Wallace never was able to get a run at the two leaders and finished just behind Earnhardt.
"I learned a lot today about how to maneuver around with these new rules, and I learned a lot from watching Dale today," Wallace said. "It was a little nerve-racking the way the cars were handling, but it's a little too early to make a judgment."
Elliott, who won the pole for next Sunday's featured race in qualifying Saturday, never got into contention with the only one of the new Dodge Intrepids in the race.
"We learned quite a bit," the two-time Daytona winner said. "The biggest thing we needed to do was run the whole race. We're encouraged. We just need to work on our handling package a little."
Speedweeks continues today with the second round of qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500. Two rounds of time trials will set the fields for Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying heats that determine positions three through 30 for the 43-car lineup.
Positions 31-36 go to the drivers with the fastest remaining laps from time trials, with the rest of the field filled with provisional starters based on last year's car owner points.