Dale Jr. ‘top gun’ as is Denny in duels
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Hendrick vs. Gibbs. Jimmie, Jeff and Junior vs. Tony, Denny and Kyle.
Hendrick Motorsports’ top two drivers hold a combined six Cup series championships — and the other guy just happens to be NASCAR’s most popular driver and a restrictor-plate racing wizard. Joe Gibbs Racing has a two-time champion and two of the series’ rising stars.
How big is this Daytona 500 showdown?
“It’s going to be the epic battle, and it should be the battle of a lifetime and the century,” Gibbs driver Tony Stewart quipped. “There may not be another battle of this proportion for the rest of my life, my career, for the century.”
OK, so Stewart was exaggerating. Still, when Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin each won a qualifying race Thursday, it set the stage for a heck of a show Sunday.
Oh by the way, Hendrick’s overshadowed driver, Casey Mears, is starting ninth. That means six of the top nine spots will be filled by drivers from those two teams. Gibbs driver Kyle Busch will roll off from the 24th position. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson, the two-time defending Cup series champion, will start from the pole.
It makes either team the obvious favorite to win the 50th running of The Great American Race. But Stewart, who finished second to teammate Hamlin in Thursday’s second qualifier, said it wasn’t that simple.
“I think you can’t just limit to those two teams,” Stewart said. “But like I said, if it helps us make a better headline for tomorrow, yeah, it’s going to be the battle of a lifetime.”
That’s certainly the way it looked after all four Hendrick cars and two of the three Gibbs cars overcame engine problems that forced them to swap their motors before Thursday’s races. Just the day before, Gibbs had four motors traveling up I-95 as four motors headed down to Daytona, and the two truck drivers honked as they passed each other.
After years of playing second fiddle to Hendrick as the top team for General Motors — Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season — Gibbs will try to dethrone the powerful team with its new Toyota support. Hamlin drove a Camry to its first win in NASCAR’s top series by working with Stewart, then ultimately passed his teammate for the qualifying race victory.
“To give those guys their very first win, and so early into the season, is definitely a proud moment,” Hamlin said.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, who is retiring next month, raced his way into his final 500 start. He joined John Andretti, Kenny Wallace and Brian Vickers as drivers who made their way into the race through Thursday’s qualifiers.
But two-time Daytona 500 winners Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott joined former open-wheel standouts Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier as drivers who failed to make NASCAR’s showcase event.
They’ll have to watch from home as the Hendrick and Gibbs teams battle it out, with Earnhardt going off as the favorite. He’s 2-for-2 in his Hendrick debut after stealing a win from Stewart in last week’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout, then holding on to win the first of Thursday’s qualifiers.
Stewart seemed poised to win the second qualifier, but a late race caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish. During a six-minute red flag he talked strategy with Hamlin, debating how to hold off Gordon, who lurked in third place.
Stewart predicted Gordon would lay off on the re-start and try to chase the Gibbs drivers down.
“That’s his normal deal, he won’t take off when we do,” Stewart said. “Watch your rearview mirror and react accordingly. Do what you gotta do after that, man.”
That’s exactly what Hamlin did, sticking with Gordon before passing his teammate for the win. It was a big picture victory, and Stewart didn’t mind losing out to his teammate.
“Great job, bud,” Stewart radioed. “You did right. You did exactly what you needed to do.”
Now they’ll try to do it again Sunday, where a Hendrick driver — any of the four — could win. The team has shown zero dropoff from 2007 and appears even stronger with Earnhardt now in the mix.
But NASCAR’s most popular driver — the 2004 Daytona 500 winner — wasn’t ready to declare himself the favorite.
“I feel like we got a shot, you know what I mean?” Earnhardt said. “Nobody is boastful enough, I don’t think, personality-wise, to come in here and claim that. I wouldn’t expect anybody to do that.
“But I think we got a great shot.”