DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Fun.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had himself a bucketful of it Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, kicking off his career as a Hendrick Motorsports driver in the best way possible with a victory in the Budweiser Shootout.
“I had a blast those last few laps,” Earnhardt Jr. said, speaking of the three-lap run following a late yellow in which he outdueled Tony Stewart for the victory.
“I hope the fans enjoyed that. I am so happy. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
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Earnhardt Jr., driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for the first time after spending his entire Cup career in No. 8 Chevrolets owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc. and sponsored by Budweiser, credited his new team for his first Cup victory of any kind since a win at Richmond in May 2006.
“I got some great help from my teammates,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t win the race without Jimmie pushing me.”
You just can’t beat fun.
He was speaking of Jimmie Johnson, the two-time defending Cup champion, who lined up behind Earnhardt Jr. for the final restart and provided the drafting push that helped push the No. 88 to victory.
“I knew I could get some help, but I knew they wanted to win the race, too,” Earnhardt Jr. said of Johnson, who wound up third, and Jeff Gordon, who finished fourth.
“If they had the opportunity, I knew they would try to win and that’s what I would have done, too.”
Johnson might have had the kind of run that would have carried him to victory in the non-points event, but Earnhardt Jr. moved up in front of him and that was a decisive moment as Earnhardt Jr. won this race for the second time. He also won it in 2003.
“I have lost a lot of races by making a move too early,” said Johnson, who was in a backup car and spent the first 20-lap segment just trying to hang onto the lead draft before his crew adjusted and made his Chevrolet better.
“I waited and waited, but the car didn’t have anything left. ...I felt like my safest situation was to wait for that scramble with a lap or two. ...I was running out of steam.”
Stewart, a three-time Shootout winner and the event’s defending champion, said he did all he could in his No. 20 Toyota.
“We were climbing an uphill battle down on the bottom,” Stewart said.
“But it’s hard to beat Dale Jr. He’s one of the best restrictor-plate drivers there has ever been. He learned a lot from his dad. He might even be better, I don’t know.”
That’s high praise, of course, since Dale Earnhardt won 34 races at this 2.5-mile track.
Most of the field made pit stops under yellow after David Gilliland cut a tire and shot into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 48. As he bounced off the barrier, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle all got a piece of the wreck.
Dave Blaney’s Toyota crew changed only two tires and that got him back on the track first, just ahead of Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears and Johnson, for a restart with 18 to go.
Earnhardt Jr. had led for much of the night in the outside line with Stewart trying to claw forward in the low lane. On Lap 61, Stewart got behind the leader and then made his move, swinging into the inside and then pulling past the No. 88 Chevrolet.
But three laps later, Kurt Busch got loose going into Turn 3. Despite a valiant fight to save it, Busch spun his Dodge to cause a caution and set up the three-lap dash to the checkered flag.
All restarts in the Shootout are double-file, so that allowed Earnhardt Jr. to line up beside Stewart and set up the final duel.
“I thought we fought a good fight tonight,” Stewart said.
“Dale Jr. is just good. He knows where to be on the race track. He knows when to switch lines. He knows how to read which line is coming and to get where he needs to be.
“Jeff and Jimmie are the same way. Anytime you can run like we did tonight with those three guys, you are just happy you can run that good with them. It’s never in your favor to have those guys line up like that.”