Sunday, February 10, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. aced his first test with his new team.

Earnhardt had a smashing debut in his Hendrick Motorsports ride, getting a boost from his new teammates to power past Tony Stewart to win the Budweiser Shootout last night.

It was Earnhardt’s first victory in any series since summer 2006, and could be a sign of things to come now that NASCAR’s most popular driver is partnered with its most powerful team.

Seconds after taking the checkered flag, Earnhardt declared himself a favorite for next week’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“What a race car!” Earnhardt yelled over his radio. “This might be a [Daytona] 500 winner here and you don’t know it.”

The winner of the 70-lap exhibition has gone on to win the Daytona 500 five times, with Dale Jarrett the last in 2000.

Earnhardt 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.

“It felt pretty good to be back like we’re supposed to be,” said Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s cousin and crew chief.

The two burst into the winner’s press conference, Earnhardt sprinting to the stage with an ear-to-ear grin. He said his 2004 Daytona 500 victory was his greatest, but said last night’s show ranked right up there.

“I don’t know what took him so long to win a race for us,” car owner Rick Hendrick quipped. “It sure takes a lot of pressure off.”

Stewart was closing in on the win until a late caution 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.

The push from Johnson helped Earnhardt slide past Stewart on the outside and 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 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.

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