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Earnhardt at home in new ride
No. 88 wins the exhibition with help from Hendrick teammates.
By Brant James, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports in front of fans at Daytona International Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows how to make himself at home in Victory Lane after winning the Bud Shootout.
DAYTONA BEACH - Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can still drive.
Wheeling the gold standard of NASCAR equipment in a race for the first time since leaving the team his late father founded, the sport's most popular driver exploited the first opportunity to prove his nearly two-year absence from Victory Lane was not entirely his fault.
Earnhardt led 47 of 70 laps in the 30th Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, passing defending champ Tony Stewart with two laps left to win the annual nonpoints appetizer to the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt displayed the same seemingly genetic mastery of restrictor-plate racing that helped him win the 2004 Daytona 500 and used the type of stout race car that won 18 of 36 points races for Hendrick Motorsports last season.
Hehas not won a Sprint (formerly Nextel) Cup points event since May 6, 2006, at Richmond - a stretch of 62 races - but looked like a natural again Saturday, passing Stewart coming out of Turn 3 in the No. 88 Chevrolet as his new teammates - specifically Jimmie Johnson - lined up behind him.
Earnhardt followed his second win in the event with a lengthy burnout - that left a smoking skid mark reminiscent of an "88" - plus a beaming smile and the admission, "this was fun."
Stewart was second, followed by Hendrick's Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Reed Sorenson was fifth.
Kurt Busch's spinout coming out of Turn 3 with six laps left set up a final three-lap dash with Stewart on the lead, but all four Hendrick cars massed behind him, led by second-place Earnhardt.
"You have to be happy for him," Stewart said. "He was under a lot of pressure with the switch."
Five Shootout winners have gone on two win the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt was already looking ahead before exiting the car.
"This might be a 500 winner you got here and don't know it," he radioed to his cousin and crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.
The Shootout provided an early cheat sheet on how the once-dubbed Car of Tomorrow will perform in its full-season rollout.
The first race action in the car at the 2.5-mile superspeedway apparently challenged even Johnson's two-time defending series champion team, if he was to be believed he was struggling in the first 20-lap segment. Johnson came from far behind in the 23-car field in a car he raced at the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway, unheard of in the previous incarnation of car.
The unique race for 2007 pole winners and former Shootout winners is split into 20- and 50-lap segments with a 10-minute intermission for fine-tuning. Johnson compared his car to a brick after the first segment, where he stood 11th and Gordon 12th. Both drivers utilized back-up cars after their primaries were consumed in a practice on Friday.
Jamie McMurray drew the second caution of the race in the second session, with the help of Denny Hamlin on Lap 23, when he scraped the wall hard entering the tri-oval. McMurray had slowed in front of Hamlin exiting Turn 4.
Earnhardt, the 2003 winner, started seventh but ended the first 20-lap session in the lead. Earnhardt's 47 laps led broke the record set by Greg Biffle in 2005.