DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Controversy aside, Tony Stewart returned to what he still does best Saturday night – racing.
Stewart, who spent Friday engaged in battle with driver Kurt Busch, both on and off the track, nearly pulled off a victory in the Budweiser Shootout, getting passed by eventual winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a three-lap, one-on-one battle to the finish.
Earnhardt Jr. got an assist from new Hendrick Motorsports teammate and reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, while Stewart was left to battle alone. He finished second in the 23-car non-points event open to pole winners from the previous season and past winners of the race.
Stewart won the race last year at Daytona International Speedway as well as one Gatorade Duel, but has yet to win a Daytona 500.
“It’s hard to beat Dale Jr. He’s one of the best restrictor-plate drivers there’s ever been,” said Stewart, after exiting his No. 20 Toyota on pit road. “I can’t be disappointed."
The race was the first for Stewart in a Toyota and the first at Daytona for NASCAR’s new, boxier car, which features a rear wing instead of spoiler.
“For first race with the new car on this track, it was pretty exciting,” Stewart said. “It seemed very important to be up front. It was just a matter of keeping track position.
“I think you have to have a lot more help from behind (from other drivers). It kind of reminds me of when we had the (aerodynamic) package where we had the wicker on the car. They don’t pull up quite as fast, but once these cars get a run, it’s hard to break that momentum.
“There were runs that I saw tonight that I didn’t dare get in front of. Some of those runs you had to let go and there was no way to defend against it.”