DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Bumping, grinding and kaleidoscopic scrambling are back in NASCAR racing at Daytona. Yesterday's Bud Shootout lived up to its surname.
"It was something I don't think anybody's seen here in a long time," winner Tony Stewart reckoned, quite precisely for his 29 years. Not since Stewart's childhood, and the heyday of Richard Petty and David Pearson, had the old, crowd-wowing "slingshot" pass been in such evidence at Daytona International Speedway.
Stewart cut the show short in the final seconds and held off Dale Earnhardt on the final lap. But before that, the slingshot made for almost clockwork lead-changing every few laps.
In the 70-lap sprint, there were 19 lead changes - more than twice as many as in the entire 200-lap yawner that passed as last year's Daytona 500. That augurs well for the competition in next Sunday's 43rd running of NASCAR's premier race.
So far, so good for NASCAR's aerodynamic changes in body styles for this year. "Blades" - metal strips across the roofs of the cars - and raised rear spoilers cause the Winston Cup cars to knock bigger holes in the air. That brings drafting back into play.
As a lead car moves, it gives off a wash of air and leaves a calm area immediately behind - much as a speed boat affects water. A trailing driver can catch a tow from the leader, and then at the right moment, pull out and be catapulted by the turbulence, in a slingshot effect, into the lead.
Even Earnhardt, at 49 a traditionalist who had complained bitterly about the poor competition at Daytona in recent years, reversed his thinking.
Precisely 52 weeks ago after the Shootout, Earnhardt growled that "Bill France Sr. [NASCAR's founder] was probably turning over in his grave."
"Today," Earnhardt said yesterday, "he was probably jumping up and down."
Stewart hadn't participated in the swirling shows of yore on Daytona's 31-degree banking, but, like Earnhardt, he's a veteran of grass-roots American dirt-track racing.
And "this was like an ol' dirt track race," said Stewart. "The second-place guy would drive down to the bottom of the track and get in front, and then the guy who got passed would turn back down and drive back underneath him coming off the corner. It was a lot of fun."
But the slingshot worked best in the same place it had in the old days - down the backstretch, and into Turn 3 of the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
With two laps to go, Earnhardt made a charge down the backstretch, pulled his Chevrolet alongside Stewart's Pontiac in Turn 3, and had the lead by Turn 4.
One lap later, Stewart reciprocated. And so after they took the white flag at the start-finish line, signaling a single lap remaining, it seemed a mathematical and aerodynamic certainty that Earnhardt would have the last pass "down the back and into 3" as drivers put it.
But, Earnhardt explained afterward, "When I was trying to get by him he moved around down the back straightaway, and I got the bumper to him and pushed him."
Stewart shied away from admitting he was blocking Earnhardt: "I kept watching what he was doing behind me - how he was trying to get his runs and get his momentum built up. I was doing everything I could in different parts of the track, to try to break his momentum. I made sure he didn't catch me in a spot on the track that would give him an opportunity to go by."
Stewart's other major advantage, Earnhardt said, was that "he was on fresher tires than we were."
Pleased as he was to have beaten the man widely considered the all-time maestro of "working the air" at Daytona, Stewart said he would rather have dueled at the end with Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr.
The younger Earnhardt and Stewart had dueled near the front of the pack for most of the race, until a long drafting line hung Junior's Chevrolet out of the draft with three laps to go, and dropped him from second place to out of contention in only the length of the backstretch - 3,000 feet. Earnhardt Jr. wound up sixth.
Though the Shootout didn't count in Winston Cup points - the chase to the season championship will begin with the 500 next Sunday - it was a roaring start for Stewart's powerful Pontiac team owned by former NFL coach Joe Gibbs. Stewart's teammate, reigning Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, finished seventh.
Bill Elliott, driving the only Dodge in the Shootout, finished 12th in what amounted to the maiden voyage under race conditions for the racing version of Dodge's Intrepid model.
It wasn't the same car in which Elliott had won the Daytona 500 pole on Saturday, so he wasn't concerned about the so-so shakedown in the draft.
"We need to work on our handling package," Elliott said, "but our 500 car is considerably better. ... Now we'll see how we do in the 125s [the two qualifying races scheduled for Thursday]."
Even the twin 125s, which were follow-the-leader dogs last year, now promise to return to the wild scrambles that once made them notorious. All in all, "This is about as good as restrictor-plate racing can get," said Stewart.
Dion Ciccarelli of Severn, Md., finished 18th in yesterday's ARCA race at Daytona.(Results, 8D)