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Earnhardt glad to get first thing first

Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his dramatic move to top-flight Hendrick Motorsports in the off-season, most agreed NASCAR’s most popular driver would be under pressure to win -- and quickly.

The pressure lasted all of one race.

With a helpful push from teammate Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet past Tony Stewart’s Toyota with two laps left to win the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

The Shootout is a 70-lap, non-points dash that’s mainly an exhibition to kick off a week of racing that climaxes with the season’s opening points race, the Daytona 500, next Sunday.

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No matter. For Earnhardt and Hendrick, the win was a bellwether for what they hope will be a resurgence of Earnhardt’s career -- which is exactly why he went to Hendrick from his family team in the first place.

“I had so much fun out there tonight,” said a giddy Earnhardt, who led 47 of the 70 laps. “The car was just really good. We also had a lot of help at the end from Jimmie.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick said, “This feels so good just to get [a win] out of the way. It sure takes the pressure off.”

It was Earnhardt’s first visit to a Victory Lane since May 2006, when he won at Richmond, Va. The win also was Earnhardt’s second Shootout victory; the first came in 2003.

He also won the Daytona 500 in 2004, three years after his father, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash in the 500.

“Junior,” as he’s called, said he’s shooting for a second 500 victory next Sunday. “This is where my daddy died, and I want to keep on whoopin’ it,” he said.

The Shootout also was the first major test of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow on the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona oval, where NASCAR caps speeds at about 200 mph with carburetor restrictor plates.

After two multi-car wrecks in practice Friday, there were fears that the COT would prove troublesome in the Shootout.

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There were incidents, but the night mostly saw close, side-by-side racing between Earnhardt, Stewart, Johnson and NASCAR’s other heavyweights.

One crash in practice Friday involving Stewart and Kurt Busch prompted an angry Busch to bang into Stewart’s car as they drove back to the garage.

After two meetings with officials, NASCAR warned the drivers to keep their distance this week.

There also was a rumor that Stewart took a swing at Busch during the first meeting, but that couldn’t be confirmed.

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Asked about the rumor, Stewart said: “What happens behind NASCAR trailer doors stays behind NASCAR trailer doors.” He declined further comment.

The atmosphere probably will be calmer today during front-row qualifying for the Daytona 500, with the drivers -- one at a time -- trying to secure the top two starting spots.

Only those two positions are up for grabs. Under the 500’s unique qualifying format, the lineup for the rest of the 43-car field will be decided based on the outcomes of two 150-mile heat races Thursday.

Californian Scott Speed led several laps at Daytona in the season opener of the ARCA series, a developmental stock car racing league, but finished 39th after being collected in a multi-car crash. Speed, of Manteca, drove in the Formula One series for 18 months until he was released last summer.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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