February 9, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- New team. New number. New season. Back to the same old results for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt won the exhibition Budweiser Shootout with a dominating run Saturday night in his new Hendrick Motorsports ride, powering past Tony Stewart with two laps to go and holding on for his first win against Cup drivers since early 2006.
"What a race car!" Earnhardt yelled over his radio. "This might be a (Daytona) 500 winner here and you don't know it."
Earnhardt then spun his new white No. 88 Chevrolet in a flurry of victory doughnuts before excitedly heading to Victory Lane.
No one had to show him the way.
It was his 11th victory at NASCAR's most famous track, but first since a second-tier Nationwide Series win in June 2006. His last official Cup win came at Richmond the month before.
"That was fun. I mean, the Shootout is a neat race, and I had a blast those last few laps," said Earnhardt, who also won the race in 2003. "I hope the fans enjoyed that. Wow, man, that was fun. My new team, Victory Lane, man! It don't get no better."
Stewart capped a tumultuous 24 hours by finishing second. The two-time series champion and Kurt Busch were told to steer clear of each other in a Saturday morning meeting because of an altercation on the track that carried over into the NASCAR hauler.
Stewart allegedly punched Busch during the confrontation, but all participants in that meeting refused to confirm or deny the altercation.
Stewart was closing in on the win until a late caution -- ironically caused when Busch spun his car -- set up a final restart with three laps to go. Stewart was out front, but was surrounded by a fleet of Hendrick cars who seemed hellbent on getting their new teammate to checkered flag.
With a huge push from two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt slid past Stewart on the outside and moved into the front. Jeff Gordon was behind Stewart, and with no chance to win the race himself, he certainly wasn't going to push Stewart past his teammate.
"I'm real happy for Junior," Gordon said. "It's awesome to have him at Hendrick Motorsports and real proud of those guys to do that in their first race out."
Stewart was content with second place.
"I'm pretty happy. I mean, it's hard to beat Dale Jr.," he said. "I mean, 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."
Johnson finished third, and was followed by Gordon, Reed Sorenson and Casey Mears. All four Hendrick cars finished in the top six.
But the celebration was strictly for Earnhardt, who was met in Victory Lane by new boss Rick Hendrick. The two are under tremendous pressure to produce winning results for NASCAR's most popular driver, who hasn't been a consistent contender for nearly two years.
He failed to make the Chase for the championship last season, his final year with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Unable to get along with stepmother Teresa, Earnhardt fled his late father's race team for a fresh start with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. The team won 18 of 36 races last season and its second straight championship.
The Associated Press News Service
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