Miller offers up 'friendly' wager on Busch vs. Junior

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Miller Brewing Company is so excited about the new driver for their No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge that they're willing to bet he'll finish strong in this year's championship race.

In fact, they bet the folks at Anheuser-Busch that their guy, Kurt Busch, would finish higher in the final standings than the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The stakes: The losing sponsor must change the paint scheme on its car to match the winning brand's car for one Nextel Cup Series points race next year. What's more, the winning sponsor gets to choose which race, excluding the season-opening Daytona 500 and the season-ending Ford 400.

"We're having a lot of fun with it," Miller spokesperson Pete Marino said after the Milwaukee-based beer company sent the challenge to its St. Louis-based competitor on Friday morning. "We've got a great new driver and an awful lot of confidence in him."

Anheuser-Busch's response came quickly: "I sincerely doubt we're considering it," said Brian Eaton of Busch's Public Affairs Office. Though Anheuser-Busch didn't formally say no, that's only because they don't want to entertain the idea. Better to leave their race car driver to speak for the company, though he was caught by surprise.

"You're joking, right?" the Bud driver said when asked. "No … That's something dreamed up by the guys in Milwaukee."

Jade Gurss, a publicist for Junior, chalked the challenge up to Miller's attempt to create a rivalry between Busch and Junior, who did have a brief run-in during Busch's rookie year in 2001. But he said Junior doesn't need to engage in rivalries. Just look at the poll on NASCAR.com which asked race fans who, Busch or Junior, would finish higher in the 2006 points standings. Friday evening, with more than 20,000 responses, Junior had 78 percent of the votes.

Indeed, Gurss said Bud shouldn't have an interest in rivalries, either.

"The beer business is like any other, in that you certainly have an eye on your competitors," Gurss said, "but it reached a point where Junior's popularity and media exposure was just so far beyond what the other beer companies had been doing."

Marino said it wasn't an attempt to stir a rivalry, rather it was a showing of confidence in the driver of their No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.

"[It's a] creative way to demonstrate our belief in Kurt and our conviction in him being the right guy for us," Marino said. " … Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch have been engaged in healthy competition a long, long time. From the day both breweries had some national presence, we've been locked in healthy competition together."

The Beer War between Budweiser race cars and Miller race cars has been around for a while, too. In fact, after winning the 2003 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, Junior said he thought Rusty Wallace, the former driver of the Miller Lite car, raced him harder than any other driver in the Series. He attributed some of that to his personality, but he also said it had to do with the sponsors the two drivers raced for.

The competition heats up off the track, too. Recall the barbs the two beer companies traded via commercials in recent years. Miller aired commercials showing referees penalizing drinkers and employees of Busch's top-selling Budweiser and Bud Light beers. In those ads, the referees replaced Bud with Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. Anheuser-Busch responded with commercials suggesting that the referees were actually replacing the beers so they could steal the Bud and Bud Light for themselves.

The rivalry, described as a friendly one by both companies, exists at the highest levels.

A this year's annual Beer Institute conference, the torch was passed from former chairman, Anheuser-Busch President Augustus Busch IV, to new chairman, Miller CEO Norman Adami. The two took the opportunity to make a little wager, too. The conference fell on the same weekend the St. Louis Cardinals played the Brewers in Milwaukee and the two bet on their hometown teams.

"I think they bet like $10," Marino said. "And the Cardinals won."

Miller's proposal on Friday went well beyond double or nothing. Though Marino mused that Miller wasn't concerned with the stakes.

"We don't believe there's too much risk in the challenge for us," he said.

While Marino stressed that this was a friendly challenge, the companies' interests in Junior's and Busch's performances [as well as Wallace's, when he was driving the 2 car] aren't all fun and games.

"Anytime Rusty finished near the top or at the top of a race, it had a positive impact on business," said Marino, who added that hopes are high that the positive impacts will be seen often under Busch's Miller Lite regime.

"It's taken very seriously," Gurss said. "[Anheuser-Busch] wants to make sure it's our guy whose cardboard cutout is in the convenience store."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com