DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As long as Tony Stewart has been racing, he has no recollection of running three-wide at the front of the pack -- until Saturday.
"I don't ever remember being part of something like that," Stewart said after eventually pulling away in the final laps to win the crash-filled Hershey's Kissables 300 NASCAR Busch Series race.
After wresting the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 13 laps to go, Stewart had to fight off several challenges, including simultaneous runs by pals Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip, who raced side-by-side with him for nearly two laps as the crowd of about 100,000 at Daytona International Speedway stood and cheered.
"I think that's the first time I've gotten lucky enough to be in the front, three-wide like that," said Stewart, one of the favorites to win Sunday's Daytona 500. "I'm not real excited having to be in that situation tomorrow. But, if that's what it comes down to, trust me, I'm not backing out of it.
"I was extremely loose down there at times on the bottom, and I'm sure Junior was loose and I'm sure Michael was loose and tight up on top. The good thing is you have the confidence in those two guys.
"It didn't concern me that we were three-wide racing for the lead like that. It actually made that part even more fun, knowing you could trust those guys."
It was the second year in a row Stewart, the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion, has won the 300-mile race at Daytona in a car fielded by fellow Cup star Kevin Harvick's Busch team. They are his only Busch wins in 54 tries.
Last year, it was Harvick who pushed Stewart to the win. This time, the help came from a much more unlikely source -- new teammate Burney Lamar, a rookie making only his third Busch start.
"He did an awesome job," Stewart said of Lamar, who battled with Clint Bowyer, a Cup rookie this year and last year's Busch series runner-up, to the finish line and was awarded second place after a review of the video by NASCAR.
"For a kid like him to put himself even into that position was pretty remarkable," Stewart said.
Said Lamar: "I was just happy to finish a Busch race. That was actually the first one I ever finished. It's just a top-notch team. If I can get to the level they're at, we'll have some success."
Jon Wood was credited with fourth and Harvick fifth in a Richard Childress Racing car.
Stewart, who battled an ill-handling car in the early going Saturday, said he intended to stay behind Earnhardt for a while, but got so much momentum going that he had to make the pass for the lead when he did.
"I was going to stay with Junior there, but I had such a big run, there was no way to stop," Stewart said. "We would have both gotten blown by. So I just had to take it."
After Stewart took the lead, two of the race-record 11 caution flags waved in a four-lap stretch, slowing the action. But, when the green flag waved with five of the 120 laps remaining, the race really got wild.
That's when Earnhardt and Waltrip moved alongside the leader's Chevrolet for their breathtaking challenge. But Stewart was able to nose ahead at the finish line each time.
There was plenty of two- and three-wide action behind the leaders, too.
On lap 118, Lamar's Chevrolet seemed to materialize out of nowhere, moving behind Stewart and giving him a winning shove as Earnhardt and Waltrip slipped back into the pack.
That's when Bowyer moved into the second spot and tried to catch Stewart. Within moments, though, he had his hands full battling Lamar for second.
"It was fun," Bowyer said. "At that point, you're just going for it. You're not thinking about wrecking. It turned out pretty good."
The race was punctuated by a series of crashes, the biggest of which came on the final lap. As Stewart raced away to the victory, a melee involving at least 10 cars took place behind the leaders, with cars crashing into the wall and sliding and spinning through the infield grass.
There were no injuries reported, but it took NASCAR more than an hour of reviewing tape to figure out who finished in what position behind the front-runners.
Denny Hamlin, another Cup rookie this year, was the first driver to be penalized by NASCAR under it's new policy of policing several zones on the track for rough driving. Hamlin appeared to rear-end Brian Vickers, who in turn hit Kasey Kahne.
NASCAR sent Hamlin to the rear of the pack for the next restart for rough driving.
-- The Associated Press
Shuffled to the back
Bobby Labonte had a fourth-row starting position -- eighth overall -- for the Daytona 500.
His Petty Enterprises Dodge blew an engine during practice Saturday, meaning the team will have to switch engines and start at the rear of the 43-car field.
He'll have family nearby. Older brother Terry Labonte starts 42nd thanks to a past champions provisional.
-- K. Lee Davis
Aikman knows autographs, but at race time?
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterack Troy Aikman, with former Cowboys QB Roger Staubach an owner of the Hall of Fame Racing team in the Nextel Cup Series, knows his way around a media room.
And with his job as an NFL commentator, Aikman understands life in front of cameras.
Still, he was surprised at just how accessible drivers and teams are in NASCAR.
"I was making a comment to a friend of mine when we were watching the qualifying, it is amazing to me, that right up until race time, these guys are still accessible to the fans and signing autographs," he said. "You would never get that close to any other athlete in any other sport.
"The fact that the drivers, the stars of the sport, are that approachable [shows] they understand what drives the sport. I don't know that in football, while I was playing or even now, that players really understand or appreciate what drives the sport. In NASCAR, they seem to have a pretty good feel for it."
Would he have welcomed this in football?
"It just wouldn't be possible," he said. "My reaction would probably be amazement."
-- K. Lee Davis
Kirk Shelmerdine was still searching for a sponsor and a pit crew Saturday, one day before the biggest race of his career.
"We're shaking the bushes," said Shelmerdine, a former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt and a surprise qualifier for the Daytona 500.
Shelmerdine said few big-time sponsors have shown interest. As for a pit crew, he said paying a Busch Series team was an option, but that many of them had tight schedules because they have to travel to California next week and then Mexico.
-- The Associated Press
3M for Michigan
Michigan International Speedway, commonly among the last tracks on the NASCAR scene to finalize naming rights for races, has brought in 3M to be the title sponsor of the first of two Nextel Cup races this season in Brooklyn, Mich.
The 3M Performance 400 is scheduled for June 18. The Aug. 20 race was earlier named the GFS Marketplace 400.
-- K. Lee Davis