Tony Stewart had to battle solo against two strong squadrons of cars from other teams, and then fight off a lone dark horse.
But in the end, Saturday night's Pepsi 400 was just a rerun of the summer night race a year ago. Stewart repeated at dominating, and at winning.
One performance he easily topped was the fence-climbing act he debuted at the Pepsi of 2005, which began endearing the long-controversial Indiana driver to once-hostile fans.
This time, Stewart not only scaled the fence but captured the checkered flag from the flagman atop the stand, then plunged into the crowd waiting in the front area of the grandstands.
Actually the latter triumph was serendipitous, he said.
"I made a mistake -- I went down the ladder [from the flag stand], thinking there was a gate there [through the fence and back onto the track]," he said. "I didn't find the gate and was in the mosh pit for a while. So I'm pretty sure I'm not cut out for punk rock bands."
But that was the toughest part of his evening. Compared to running up front at night at Daytona International Speedway, he said, "Climbing the fence is harder."
Stewart's Chevrolet held its own all evening against a foursome of Hendrick Motorsports Chevys -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers -- and three Roush Racing Fords of Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
Then after the final caution, Stewart swiped the victory by running down surprise leader Boris Said, a road-racing specialist who'd started on the pole but dropped off the radar screen for most of the race before coming back out of nowhere at the end.
Two late wrecks devastated the Hendrick and Roush contingents, and all the final two cautions did to Stewart was make him work a bit harder at the end.
Johnson crashed into Bobby Labonte with 14 of the 160 laps left. Stewart restarted 10th after a pit stop, but on four fresh tires he blasted back to second place by the time the last caution came out with seven laps to go. That last pileup took Gordon and Biffle out of the race.
A lap after the final restart, Stewart pulled past dark horse Said with two laps to go, and coasted to victory when a last wreck froze the field during the final lap.
"It got a little hairy getting through there in a couple of spots," Stewart said of his late dash from 10th to first, "but we got where we needed to go."
When the wild shuffling in the swirling drafts was over, brothers Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch wound up second and third, respectively, and Said was fourth.
Stewart commanded the race from the first lap except for a few brief setbacks under the cautions, and as the green-flag pit cycles progressed.
Last year Stewart called his car the best he'd ever driven in his life, and Saturday night he deferred to the impeccable preparation by crew chief Greg Zipadelli and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew.
"This is their race, not mine," Stewart said.
But it may have been more driver than car Saturday night. The Chevy wasn't flawless this time, requiring adjustments as the race went on.
"It wasn't quite as good to start with," he said. "The first three runs of the race, we were a little bit loose and needed to tighten the car up. That's where Zippy and the guys did an awesome job."
As for nearing perfection, "It got that way at the end -- I'm just not sure it was to the point to where I could just go and run and not have to worry about holding guys off.
"I really had to pay more attention to what was going on behind me this year than last year."
A year ago, Stewart came here straight off a win and went on to compile five wins in seven races, a surge that launched him toward the 2005 Nextel Cup championship.
This time, Stewart said, "This team needed this. We've had two really tough weeks the last couple of weeks, with Michigan [where he crashed and wound up 41st on June 18] and Sonoma [Calif., last Sunday, when his car limped home 28th with a sputtering engine]. So it's nice to finish this one off here."
As last year, Stewart led the most laps of any driver, this time 86 of the 160 around Daytona International Speedway.
Yet like the late restrictor-plate racing maestro Dale Earnhardt before him, "I still hate plate racing," Stewart said.
"I've never liked it, and I never will like it. I should say I don't like it, not that I hate it. I just don't like any kind of racing where you have to depend on somebody else," he said, referring to the aerodynamic pulls and pushes necessary for getting to the front and staying there.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun