DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he had a lot of help in providing a launching pad for Speedweeks with a victory in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout.
He thanked the teammates who helped him in the draft as he battled his way past Tony Stewart in a final three-lap dash to the win. He thanked new car owner Rick Hendrick. He thanked all the people who worked on his car and got it ready for the 70-lap non-points race at Daytona International Speedway.
“There are so many people who helped prepare this deal and hoping to get it right to where we could come in and be able to work under this microscope,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
He even thanked Stewart and Kurt Busch.
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“Them getting into it the other day (during practice) took us off the front page,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“I felt such a relief after that happened. I wasn't happy for those guys to be in that situation, but I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler. That was just as good as any push Jimmie (Johnson) could have given me.”
Stewart and Busch wrecked and then clashed afterward during Friday’s practice. That was topic du jour in the hours leading up to the Shootout, allowing Earnhardt Jr. and his team a moment’s worth of breathing room going into their on-track debut.
In the race, Earnhardt Jr. led for 47 laps but said he kept wondering if his No. 88 Chevrolet would be able to stay there when it mattered most.
“I knew going into the race my car was fast, but there were so many unknowns,” he said. “The whole race I felt like even though we were leading I could get beat.”
Stewart did his best to make that happen.
Driving a Toyota in competition for the first time, Stewart pulled into the lead on Lap 61. But a spin, ironically, by Busch brought out a caution that lined Earnhardt Jr. up alongside Stewart for the Lap 68 restart.
Earnhardt Jr. had his new teammates Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears all within range to provide drafting help and wound up capitalizing on that, setting of a Hendrick Motorsports-wide celebration in victory lane that brought even more smiles and more relief.
“It feels good to answer the question of can we win,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “Dale Jr. is as hungry and as committed as anybody who has ever sat down in one of my race cars.”
There were other questions, and perhaps doubts, despite the hard work everyone at the Hendrick did to make it happen.
“If we had broke a motor out there tonight I think I would have changed clothes and had an ambulance take me out,” Hendrick joked, referring to engine woes that bedeviled Earnhardt Jr. in his final season with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Stewart lavished praise on Earnhardt Jr.’s talents as a restrictor-plate racer, going so far as to say he might even be better at it than his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, who won a record 34 career races here.
"I have always had confidence in myself at these tracks,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“I have come down here and had cars that were difficult and made me feel average or like I am nothing special when it comes to plate racing. And then there have been times when I felt like all I could win were plate races. That used to bother me, but I have embraced it.”
Earnhardt Jr. has now added 11 Daytona victories to the family’s total and is eager to keep on piling them up here at the place his father was killed in a crash in 2001.
“Daytona is a special place,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “This is where we lost him, and I want to keep whuppin’ it.”