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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Earnhardt Jr. makes his Hendrick debut in style



Daytona Beach, FL (Sports Network) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured Saturday night's 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup debut event, the Budweiser Shootout. The No.88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver edged Tony Stewart by an unofficial 0.136 seconds for the win.

"Junior" led 47 of 70 laps, the most ever and won the race for the second time.

"That was fun," said Earnhardt Jr. "The Shootout is a neat race and I had a blast."

Following a practice accident between pole sitter Kurt Busch and Stewart which forced Busch into his backup car, Michael Waltrip brought the field to the green flag for the start.

Unlike last year when Waltrip immediately dropped back, this time the No.55 Toyota hung around the top of the charts. After a couple of laps David Gilliland and Mark Martin took turns leading the race.

Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a move to the bottom of the track for the lead and the crowd went crazy. The No.88 Chevrolet driver made it stick and he still led as the field passed the 15-lap mark.

Racing slowed as the No.21 Chevrolet of Bill Elliott lost a tire and slapped the outside wall. It took a while to get the car off the track and the field reached the end of the first 20-lap segment with "Junior" leading Dave Blaney and Reed Sorenson.

A 10-minute break in the action gave the teams a chance to adjust their cars and set it up for the final 50-lap run to the checkered flag.

The green flag dropped to start segment two and off went Earnhardt Jr. seeming as strong as anyone on the track. But at Daytona, power is less important than teammates or drafting partners. Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray teamed up and took the lead. But one lap later McMurray didn't see Denny Hamlin making a charge on the outside and the two collided sending the No.26 Ford of McMurray's to the garage.

Blaney got around "Junior" on lap 28 as the No.88 seemed content to bide his time until later in the race. But Stewart slid in behind Earnhardt Jr. and the two have always worked will together in restrictor-plate races. They jumped to the top of the track and easily powered past Blaney for the lead.

Stewart slid around Earnhardt Jr. who managed to find his new running mates, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears at the top of the track and to the delight of the fans drove back into the lead.

Gordon led a lap before Earnhardt Jr. retook the top spot with 27 laps remaining. Then Gilliland blew a right-side tire and brought out the third caution flag. When he slammed the wall he also collected Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle.

The teams took the opportunity to get new tires for the fight to the finish line. They restarted with 18 laps remaining and Earnhardt Jr. side-by-side with Blaney. But "Junior" had Hendrick Motorsports cars behind him and they charged into the lead.

The Hendrick "parade" stayed at the top of the track with both Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson ahead of the inside line. Stewart fought back and with nine laps to go he drove under Earnhardt Jr. for the lead.

There were eight laps to go and Stewart was trying to hold off "Junior" and Gordon, who were now at the bottom of the track, when Busch blew a tire. Only a great driving job by the Las Vegas native kept it off the wall, but the yellow flag still came out to give everyone a chance to take a deep breath before the finish.

They stomped on the gas pedal with three laps to go. Stewart got a great jump, maybe too good. Gordon went to the bottom with Stewart and it left Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson to fight on the outside.

The white flag came out just as Earnhardt Jr. edged ahead of Stewart. He dropped in front of Stewart as they headed into turn one. Johnson was still on the outside and he pulled up towards Earnhardt Jr. who slid up the track to block his momentum as they headed into turn three.

And it was "Junior" who crossed the finish line first in his initial race with the Hendrick Motorsports team.

"The last few laps I got some great help from my teammates," said Earnhardt Jr. "I don't win the race without Jimmie pushing me. Thanks to him...thanks to my team and thanks to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports."

Johnson, Gordon and Sorenson completed the top-five.

Qualifying for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 pole is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. (et).

02/09 22:30:42 ET

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