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The Callahan Report: The Wait Is Over; Stewart Opens 2001 With Victory in Bud Shootout

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
Tony Stewart
DAYTONA BEACH, FL: The Joe Gibbs Racing Team began 2001 where they left off at the conclusion of the 2000 racing season. Tony Stewart utilized wise pit strategy, a well handling car, and the backing of one of the best teams on the Winston Cup circuit to hold off a desperate charge from Dale Earnhardt. With his go-for-broke driving style in the final laps, Tony Stewart grabbed his first Budweiser Shootout victory. In doing so, he also made himself a favorite to win the Daytona 500 to be held next Sunday. Stewart's teammate, Bobby Labonte, won the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. The Gibbs Racing Team intends to stay on top.

With a little more than a lap to go in the seventy-lap race, Stewart was running second behind six-time Shootout winner, Dale Earnhardt. Fans and experts gave Stewart poor odds of being able to pass Earnhardt at the end. After all, passing Earnhardt in the final laps at Daytona is about as hard as finding a T-bone steak in a vegetarian's refrigerator.

"We just got a really good run," Stewart said. "When Dale got by me I noticed that my car pulled up to his pretty good. I asked the guys on the radio how many laps were left and they said, 'Two.' Knowing that he is going to do whatever he can on the last lap I kind of felt like after I made the move and got by that I may have made my move too soon."

"I kept watching what he was doing behind me and watching how he was trying to get his runs and then get that momentum built up," Stewart continued. "I was trying to do everything I could in different parts of the track to try to break his momentum or make sure he didn't catch me in the wrong spot."

Earnhardt, always a master at Daytona, took his loss in stride. He was outrun, in part, due to having older tires under him than Stewart. Earnhardt realized that this was not a point-paying race. The real money and prestige will belong to the winner of the race next Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt

"Well, it was pretty exciting," the seven-time Winston Cup Champion said. "But he (Stewart) had too strong a car. He got back by me down the back straightaway. I just couldn't keep side to side with him. We were on older tires because we pitted early. Our tires were all worn out."

There was an abundance of passing during the race. It was much more competitive than the race conducted here last year. The credit goes to NASCAR officials for tweaking the rules to allow for more passing. As is typical, race fans paid for seats they rarely used. There was too much passing to relax and sit down for a breather. There were 19 lead changes and no caution periods during the 2001 Bud Shootout.

Dodge participated in the Bud Shootout for the first time in history. Bill Elliott, who will start the Daytona 500 from the pole position next Sunday in his Dodge Intrepid, ran to a 12th place finish in a fury of activity during the last lap. Elliott was in a tight pack of cars on the lead lap. While his car is obviously fast when running alone on the track, he and his Ray Evernham led team will work on the car's handling during the week so it will work better in the turbulent traffic and draft at Daytona.

Pontiac grabbed the top spot Sunday, but there was an even mix of manufacturers represented in the top ten. The top three finishers were in different makes of cars. Earnhardt drives a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Rusty Wallace, finishing in third place, was driving his familiar Miller Lite Ford Taurus. Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton, also in Fords, rounded out the top five.

Three-time Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon was one of the early leaders. He was in the lead pack at the end, but would up in eleventh spot when the checkered flag dropped. Gordon was one of many drivers who made an early pit stop for fresh tires.

"I just know that we came in too soon," Gordon said. "I shouldn't have come in to pit when I did. I wanted to stay with Earnhardt (Sr.), and I should have been staying with the other Earnhardt (Jr.). We were on old tires out there it put us way behind."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also an early leader. He teamed up with his car owner/father to move both of them to the front of the field. Earnhardt Jr. remained a serious contender to win the Shootout until the final five laps. He was one of the few drivers able to compete with Stewart in the waning laps. Amazingly, he was doing it all with an ill-handling race car.

"I couldn't run up top where my dad was because my car was real tight and it'd just push up there," said Earnhardt Jr., a second-year NASCAR Winston Cup driver. "I kind of had to run to the middle and the bottom at turn one and it opened a hole up there for him and he took it. I was lucky to get back. I thought it was going to be worse than that."

"It was real tight up high and would just slide and I'd have to get off the gas," Earnhardt Jr. continued. "You've got to run wide open to be up front. I had to hang the left front fender out from inside of Tony (Stewart) to get my car to turn."

Of course, Daytona is still a restrictor plate race. The plates rob the powerful racers of valuable horsepower. The whole idea is to slow the cars down and to provide "safer" racing for the drivers and the fans. Many of the drivers, including winner Tony Stewart, are outspoken against the methods used to reduce speed.

"Everybody kind of got their turn at getting blocked by me," said Stewart. "That's still what I hate about restrictor plate racing. I think this blocking stuff is dangerous. Jeff Gordon about crashed the whole field early in the race and it's not something he is doing intentionally. It's just that when guys get such a big run and a guy swerves over in front of you, you've got to slam on the brakes and somebody behind you is not going to expect that."

After nearly three months of boredom, the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season is officially underway. The noise vibrates the concrete. The smell of burnt fuel and burnt rubber fills the air. There is "paint swapping" at nearly 200 mph. And of course, there are drivers complaining about race cars being slowed down (which is understandable since they get paid to go fast). For motorheads and race fans everywhere, the wait is over. Turn up the volume and enjoy the season.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.