By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt was widely considered the best restrictor-plate racer in NASCAR history -- the one guy who could see the air, work the draft, slice his way through the field and always a threat to make that one, final winning move.
Could his little boy be even better?
Tony Stewart thought so Saturday night, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. used a late pass to snatch the exhibition Budweiser Shootout away from the two-time champion. The victory ended a nearly two-year winless streak and returned Junior to the forefront of NASCAR's best plate racers.
"It's hard to beat Dale Jr.," Stewart said. "He's one of the best restrictor-plate drivers there's ever been. He learned a lot from his dad, and I'm not sure he's not better than his dad in all honesty."
Debatable? Yes. Out of the question? Maybe not. Even Junior pretty much acknowledged his success at NASCAR's most famous track.
"Daytona is a special place. How many times has an Earnhardt won here?" he asked. "Daddy won 30-something. I won, I don't know? Eleven races? That's a lot. I didn't think it was that many.
"I embrace that. This is where we lost him and I want to keep whoopin' it, you know what I'm saying?"
There was a time when Junior seemed well on his way in following in his father's footsteps as the best plate racer.
After the elder Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior started a streak of seven wins in the next 15 plate races -- including four-straight at Talladega and the 2004 Daytona 500.
It earned him the reputation as a driver only capable of winning plate races, something that bugged him quite a bit and wasn't even close to being true. One glance at his resume shows that NASCAR's most popular driver has won on a variety of tracks stretching from Bristol, Dover, Richmond and Phoenix.
Then two-plus years of struggles made Earnhardt yearn for those days of dominance.
"I have always good confidence in myself at these race tracks. I've always had good confidence in knowing what to do," he said. "There's times when I've come down here and I've had cars that were difficult and that made me feel average and made me feel like maybe I wasn't something special when it came to plate racing.
"And there was a time when it seemed like all I could win was plate races and I didn't want to take credit for it, because it seemed like it's all I ever was gonna be -- a plate-race winner. But now I have embraced it."
He should. With a new Hendrick Motorsports ride and three teammates eager to help him succeed, Earnhardt has a chance to win next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 and continue building on his legacy. The Shootout win was his 11th at Daytona International Speedway, and he's got his eye on his father's mark of 34 victories at NASCAR's most famous track.
Earnhardt was jubilant following the Shootout and quickly claimed he's a contender to win this 500. Grinning ear-to-ear and cracking jokes in a wide-ranging winners conference, the pressure to be successful as the newest member of Hendrick Motorsports had obviously been lifted with the victory.
Hendrick said the closing laps of the Shootout, when Junior received a huge push from teammate Jimmie Johnson to pass Stewart for the win, were a wave of emotions for the car owner.
He thought back to his late son, Ricky, who first suggested the team hire Earnhardt. And he thought of Earnhardt's maternal grandfather, Robert Gee, who worked at Hendrick and co-owned a Busch Series car the elder Earnhardt drove to a 1983 win at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
So when Hendrick found himself in Victory Lane on Saturday night with Earnhardt and Tony Eury Jr., his cousin and crew chief, it almost seemed as if he was celebrating his first career win.
"I have never had so many emotions going through me at the end of a race," Hendrick said. "I thought about Ricky, because he wanted this and they talked about doing this, and this happened. Then I thought about Robert Gee, because he and I came down here and raced together in a Busch car named Emma.
"The car (Junior) is going to drive in the 500 is Emma ... and I have his two grandchildren sitting here, so there is a whole lot of neat stuff going on. I mean, we are like giddy. It's a different feeling, we are having a lot of fun."