Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

BUD SHOOTOUT; Junior's Quick Start He Wins Hendrick Team Debut

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

BUD SHOOTOUT; Junior's Quick Start He Wins Hendrick Team Debut

Article excerpt

Byline: DON COBLE

DAYTONA BEACH -- As Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line Saturday night after winning the Budweiser Shootout all-star race, he let out a yell that has been years in the making.

He was overly happy, especially after passing Tony Stewart taking the white flag for the final lap, then holding him off by two car lengths as Daytona International Speedway erupted in approval.

He also felt relief. Earnhardt left his family's race team after last year with the promise of having all the tools to be successful. His boss, car owner Rick Hendrick, delivered.

"Welcome to the new deal baby," Hendrick said on the two-way radio during Earnhardt's cool-down lap. "Now for the main event."

That, of course, is next Sunday's Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet, received a lot of help from Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to get up front, then stayed there during most of the all-star race. Stewart led with one lap to go, but Johnson got behind Earnhardt to push him past Stewart on the final lap.

The winner was laughing and smiling. He was playful. For the first time in a while, racing was fun.

"That was a blast," Earnhardt said. "I didn't win the race without any help from Jimmie. Great team, Victory Lane; it don't get no better."

The race, open only to pole winners from the 2007 season and former Shootouts, doesn't count toward the Sprint Cup Series standings. Teams usually save their best cars for the Daytona 500, but Earnhardt wasn't so sure.

"We may have the car to win the Daytona 500 right here," he said. "What a great car."

Stewart, driving a Toyota, showed a lot of strength, especially running the bottom groove. But he was no match against the Hendrick machine.

"I don't know how you could ask for a better race than that," Stewart said. "A lot's riding on [Earnhardt's] shoulders. You can't be unhappy running second.

"I needed help. It's hard to race against four Hendrick cars."

Johnson finished third, followed by Gordon in fourth, Reed Sorenson and Casey Mears, another Hendrick driver, in sixth.

Two crashes in Friday night's practice session not only forced five teams to use backup cars, it put everyone on edge for Saturday night's main event. …

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