Stewart slows Jr.'s ascension

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 12:35 PM ET

DAYTONA, FLA. -- The coronation of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as king of everything at Daytona International Speedway may have to be put on hold after Tony Stewart served notice yesterday that he's finished being the bridesmaid at NASCAR Sprint Cup's biggest race of the season.

Stewart drove the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to the win at the NASCAR Nationwide Series Camper's World 300, ending Earnhardt's perfect streak this week.

Earnhardt won the Bud Shootout a week ago and the Gatorade Duel 150 on Thursday with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, leading most in the garage area to predict a sweep for the son of NASCAR's most popular champion.

There had been strong indicators all week, however, that the Toyotas would be stout on the big

21/2-mile banked oval and yesterday the Japanese manufacturer showed its dominance, claiming a 1-2 finish with Stewart's Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch completing the double.

JAPANESE MUSCLE

The Toyotas placed three cars in the top five with the

No. 83 Red Bull Racing entry of Brian Vickers finishing fourth in front of veteran Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

It was Busch who drove his No. 18 Toyota in front of the charging Earnhardt, however, on the final lap to preserve the win for Stewart.

"It's a shame that we came in second with such a great race car," Busch said in a post-race interview. "But the 20 was fast, too, and Tony Stewart's the man."

That is suddenly becoming apparent.

Stewart's detractors always have been able to point to his failures in the Daytona 500 as reason to keep him from being mentioned in the same breath as four-time champion Jeff Gordon, or even Earnhardt Jr.

Now even Earnhardt agrees that Stewart has stepped up his game on the restrictor-plate track that has been the personal playground for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Hendrick over much of the past decade.

"The situation was that you've got two great race cars with two great drivers in front of me (yesterday)," Earnhardt said. "Tony says I'm one of the best restrictor-plate drivers, but he's right there with me."

It bodes well for Stewart to win his first Daytona 500 today at a track where he has finished in the top 10 nine times in his career, including a pair of wins in the 400-mile summer race.

Judging from the sea of green in the grandstands yesterday, it was clear that Earnhardt may have lost the race but he hasn't lost any of his voracious fans, who have traded in their red jackets, shirts and hats for the new green apparel of Amp power drink.

Those fans also are expecting their hero to dominate the Daytona 500 today, as he has so many times before in his old No. 8 Chevrolet out of his late father's DEI shop.

The numbers, however, just don't add up for the lanky 33-year-old Earnhardt.

It's not just that Stewart and the Gibbs mob will be there to fight him at the end of today's battle, but he'll also have to deal with his teammates, two of whom -- Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- have six Sprint Cup titles between them.

If Earnhardt thinks either of those two will be willing to settle for second today if it comes down to last-lap shootout, he's been breathing way too many exhaust fumes.

Johnson, for one, said that teammate or no teammate, he's out to win if he can

"If I had an option to push the orange Home Depot Toyota or the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of my teammate, it's a very easy decision of who I am going to work with and help," he said. "(But) if I had the chance to get the win, I would take it."

Add that to what Stewart said about his race with his Gibbs teammate:

"I was hoping, the way we were running, and obviously (Gibbs Racing crew chief Dave Rogers) doesn't want to hear this, but as long as it was a 1-2 finish for Gibbs, no matter what the order was, I think we were all going to be happy."


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