DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Looking to make a favorable first impression with his new Hendrick Motorsports team, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won last night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway, kicking off Speedweeks 2008 in rousing fashion by holding off runner-up Tony Stewart in a green-and-white-checkered finish.
"What a race. Good job, guys," Earnhardt hollered to his crew over the radio after he crossed the finish line to record his second Shootout triumph. "What a great racecar. This might be a [Daytona] 500 winner and you might not know it."
Car owner Rick Hendrick chimed in, "What a way to start the deal, baby."
Earnhardt made headlines in May when he announced his decision to defect from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the race team his late father founded with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. But he made an even bigger splash in June when he joined forces with the sport's most dominant team.
Last night, that union paid huge dividends for Earnhardt, who received timely drafting help from his Hendrick teammates, most notably Jimmie Johnson in the final three laps.
"I had a blast," said Earnhardt, who ended a 62-race drought that dated to his victory at Richmond two years ago. "The last few laps, I got some great help from my teammates, but I wouldn't have won the race without Jimmie pushing me. So thanks to him and [crew chief Chad Knaus] for working so hard to get [Johnson's] backup ready."
Five drivers were forced to go to backup cars after an eight-car collision during a practice session Friday evening. Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Bill Elliott were banged up in that collision, and pole-sitter Kurt Busch damaged his car in a secondary collision with Stewart that ignited some pit-road fireworks.
"There was a little more thinking going on out there, much more so than practice [Friday night] when everyone was so charged up to get their cars off the trucks," said Johnson.
Dale Jarrett and Stewart changed engines yesterday and went to the rear of the field at the start of the two-segment, 70-lap dash. Casey Mears, who had been battling flu-like symptoms last week, also went to the rear of the field for missing Thursday's blind draw, and Johnson, Gordon, Newman, Elliott, and Busch started in the back for going to backups.
In keeping with the philosophy behind the switch to the new Car of Tomorrow package, which made it affordable for teams to build a fleet of interchangeable cars, Johnson and Gordon had their teams retrofit short-track cars into superspeedway cars.
Michael Waltrip inherited the pole position and ran alongside Earnhardt.
Nine laps into the race, Earnhardt powered his way to the front with a bold inside move on the backstretch and went on to lead the remaining 11 laps before pitting for a scheduled 10-minute intermission before the resumption of racing in a final 50-lap segment.
Elliott, who won the Shootout in 1987 and was making his 23d start in the race, was the first victim of the torrid pace when his No. 21 Air Force Ford Fusion cut a left front tire on Lap 16 and skidded to a stop along the wall in Turn 1.
Six laps into the second segment, Jamie McMurray dropped out when his car came down on Denny Hamlin's and McMurray careened into the wall on the frontstretch.
When racing resumed on Lap 28,
Earnhardt proceeded to joust with Stewart for the lead, but the driver of the No. 88 car got some timely help in building a commanding lead from Hendrick teammates Gordon and Mears. (Mears's car failed postrace inspection for being too low, the Associated Press reported, and NASCAR planned to look more closely at the car today.)
On Lap 48, Earnhardt's gallop was slowed when David Gilliland induced the third caution period.
Gilliland tagged the wall exiting Turn 4 and collected the cars of Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., and Kasey Kahne.
After he waged what looked to be a solitary fight against the Hendrick stable, Stewart went to the front with nine laps to go.
Kurt Busch's brilliant save of his spinning car in Turn 3 brought out the race's fourth and final caution, setting up a green-and-white-checkered finish. After racing Stewart side-by-side, Earnhardt, with Johnson's draft support, took the lead on Lap 69.
"It's hard to beat Dale Jr.," Stewart said. "I mean, he's one of the best restrictor-plate drivers that's ever been, so he learned a lot from his dad. I'm not sure he's not better than his dad now, in all honesty. To run with him and the Hendrick guys, I thought we fought a good fight tonight."
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org