DAYTONA BEACH — The pack is back. So is the Big One.
Kyle Busch edged Tony Stewart in a thrilling finish to the first race of 2012, using a sling-shot pass Saturday night on the last lap of the exhibition Budweiser Shootout to beat the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion to the checkered flag.
It gave Busch a victory in a wild race that included two incredible saves by the eventual winner to stay in contention in the 75-lap sprint around Daytona International Speedway.
"I don't know how many times I spun out, but I didn't spin out, you know?" smiled Busch, who gave Toyota its first Shootout victory.
The event was a preview of next weekend's season-opening Daytona 500, and showed that NASCAR has successfully broken up the two-car tandem racing that dominated restrictor-plate racing last year. Fans were overwhelmingly opposed to that style of racing — NASCAR said this month surveys showed over 80 percent hated the tandem — so the sanctioning body developed rules to separate the cars.
It was obvious at the start that the new rules worked as the drivers were lumped into a big pack and raced two or three wide for almost the entire race. Though it led to two big accidents — including an accident that sent Jeff Gordon skidding on his roof for what he said was the first time in his career — the drivers were nearly unanimous in their approval of the racing.
"I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while," said Stewart, who lost by 0.013 seconds — a blink of an eye — at the finish.
"I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a strong critic of the tandem racing, also was thrilled with the new product despite having his night ruined in one of many accidents.
"I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect," he said. "And I feel like I've got a better chance with this style than I did last year."
The first "Big One" was nine laps into the race, and began when David Ragan nudged Paul Menard to start a nine-car pileup.
A later wreck with two laps remaining sent Gordon sliding onto his driver's side, then his roof for roughly 1,000 feet, before his car flipped. The four-time NASCAR champion climbed out the window with his car still upside down, but, like Earnhardt, praised the racing.
"It's pretty wild and crazy, but I liked this better than what we had last year. Definitely," he said.
Gordon's accident began when he ran into the back of Busch, who used his second save of the night to avoid the accident. An earlier save left fellow competitors in awe.
"There aren't many people, ever, who could have done that," said three-time champion Stewart, who was behind Busch on the first save.
Busch shrugged off his saves in Victory Lane.
"Stab and steer — that's what you do — and some braking. There were brakes involved too," Busch smiled.
Gerhart wins ARCA race at Daytona again
Bobby Gerhart earned his record eighth ARCA victory at Daytona — and third in a row — after two of the top cars ran out of gas just a few hundred feet from the finish of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200.
"It took one little slip from the leader," Gerhart said. "Unbelievable! Wow!"
Gerhart started 42nd after failing Friday's post-qualifying inspection. He was just behind the leaders for the green flag on a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Brandon McReynolds led, with Chris Windom close behind, when their cars started sputtering. McReynolds, the son of former NASCAR crew chief and current TV analyst Larry McReynolds, led 64 of 83 laps but finished 11th. Windom was eighth.
Drew Charlson finished second, just ahead of Will Kimmel.
NHRA: Johnny Gray hung onto the No. 1 spot in Funny Car qualifying in the Arizona Nationals in Chandler. Shawn Langdon led Top Fuel and Mike Edwards topped Pro Stock heading into today's eliminations.
EAST BAY RACEWAY: Dennis Erb Jr. won the 50-lap DART Winternationals Late Model Dirt Series event late Friday. Another race in the series was held late Saturday at the Gibsonton track.