Dale Jr. aces test in debut of No. 88
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
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 on Saturday 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 news conference, Earnhardt sprinting to the stage with an ear-to-ear grin. He said his 2004 Daytona 500 victory was his greatest, but said Saturday 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 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.
The attention surrounding Stewart dimmed the focus that’s been on Earnhardt since he signed with Hendrick last June. All eyes were on his debut, and Stewart was a nice distraction for him. As he headed to his car before the race, Earnhardt pushed through a throng of photographers to joke with the temperamental two-time champion.
“Tony and Kurt getting into it the other day, that sort of took us off the front page,” Earnhardt said. “I felt such a relief after that. I wasn’t happy for those guys being in that situation, but I felt like a load had lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler.”
He equaled the distraction to the push he got from new teammate Jimmie Johnson that won him the race.
Stewart was closing in on the win until a late caution — ironically caused when Busch spun — 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. Mears’ car was too low and failed post-race inspection. NASCAR planned to look more closely at the car Sunday.
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.
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.
Now Earnhardt is expected to be in the mix, contending for his first Cup title.
Does this first win ease the burden?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never felt like I had a monkey on my back. I’ve always raced with pressure. I’ve always raced and worked and lived in tumultuous situations and I just got used to it, I guess. And Tony Jr. working with me and side by side, we grew up through it.
“Even before we got to this level, life wasn’t easy. And there wasn’t ever a golden road, easy to travel. But it is what it is. There’s a lot of pressure, I think, for us, but we’ve always delivered and I hope we will continue.”