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Big race, bigger name

The memory is burned into the minds for those who witnessed it while thousands of fans cheered wildly as an Earnhardt drove to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway.

This wasn't Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 win in 1998, when he won the race for the first time in 20 tries. No, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, his first win of any kind since Richmond in May 2006.

By winning the shootout between last year's pole winners and the drivers who have previously won this exhibition event, it didn't take Junior long to prove that he had made the right decision to join the powerful Hendrick Motorsports. He also may have established himself as the favorite to win Sunday's Daytona 500.

Earlier in his career, Junior was a master of the moment with the ability to win races at monumental times. He took the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July 2001, NASCAR's first race at that track since his father was killed in a crash in the final turn of the final lap of that year's Daytona 500. Later that same year, in NASCAR's first race since the terrorist attack on September 11, Earnhardt won at Dover and celebrated the race by driving around the track with an American flag hanging out the window of his Chevrolet. He would continue to win big races, including his first Daytona 500, in 2004.

So as NASCAR prepares for its 50th Daytona 500, it may be another big moment for Earnhardt to deliver, especially with his popular win last Saturday night.

"We have always come up to deliver in unique situations," Earnhardt said. "They weren't high-pressure situations; they were just unique situations in circumstance. I don't know really how those things really happened. At Dover, after 9/11, we just had a good car."

Earnhardt added, "There would be no better way to send ourselves into the [2008] season [than a win here] at Daytona with our new sponsors and new team. Our guys are young, they are green, but they are ready and they are hungry. They are willing to jell and learn and come together as a unit. We have several years to build on this. Coming out of the gate with a win here would be unbelievable for our team."

Even after qualifying a disappointing 15th in Sunday's Daytona 500 Pole Qualifications, Earnhardt enjoyed his return to prominence. Because of the complicated qualifying procedures for the race, only the front row of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and second-quick driver Michael Waltrip are locked into their spots on the starting grid. The rest of the order will be lined up according to their finish in Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races.

Earnhardt could score a victory in that race as well as Sunday's 500, and give his fans even more to celebrate.

"The thing about it is that when we are not in Victory Lane, they are supportive," Earnhardt said. "That's really the message I get from my fans. The funniest thing, probably for me, aside from the feeling of just being in Victory Lane and winning, is seeing the look on everybody's face. You've got fans in the grandstands over there and even in the stands of the winner's circle, cheering and carrying on. It's awesome. That's such a great feeling that people get excited about it and you made it happen. They gave us great support at the intros tonight and that was the first introduction since the move and that's a little bit of a thermometer if you will. So, I'm excited about the 500."

Although his victory in the Shootout does not constitute a Sprint Cup points victory, it relieves the burden of proving that Earnhardt can win at Hendrick Motorsports, which also includes two-time defending Cup champion Johnson, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, and Casey Mears.

"I never felt like I had a monkey on my back," Earnhardt said. "I've always raced with pressure. I've always raced and worked and lived in tumultuous situations. I just got used to it, I guess. Tony Junior [longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr.] working with me, side-by-side, we grew up through it even before we got to this level. Life wasn't easy. It wasn't ever a golden road and easy to travel. But it is what it is. We've always delivered. I hope we will continue."

Earnhardt even thanked last weekend's combatants -- Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch had an altercation on the track and in the NASCAR Hauler during Friday night's practice session -- for deflecting some of the attention away from him.

"Tony and Kurt getting into it the other day took us off the front page," Earnhardt quipped. "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."

It also gave Earnhardt's new team owner, Rick Hendrick, a tremendous sense of relief after he had been questioned about adding yet another major star and personality onto a team that is already loaded with racing talent.

"I used to hate to see him come to the front when I had a car down here, Hendrick said of Earnhardt. "When you would see him get lined up; you knew you were going to have to deal with him. It is a whole lot better having him in our car. I know from the other tests that he is going to be strong and stout at the other places, too. We have the Nationwide race coming up. We have the 500, the 150s. I just think it is going to be a show. I think we saw tonight that the fans are going to get their money's worth in these races."

Second-place finisher Stewart called Dale Jr. the best restrictor plate driver ever, even better than his father. That's high praise for a driver who has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship, even though his father won seven. But on the big tracks, where the carburetor restrictor plate is used, Earnhardt has certainly enjoyed tremendous success. Any time an Earnhardt wins a race at Daytona, it's big for the sport.

"If we can't win, I'd just as soon see Dale Jr. win," said team owner Richard Childress, the man with whom young Earnhardt's father enjoyed much of his racing success. We're pulling for any of the cars that have got the ECR engines in them. If none of those cars win, we root for Junior."

Even NASCAR Chairman Brian France was probably "rooting for Junior" after the man Earnhardt calls the "Head Dude" said that NASCAR's popularity would increase if Junior starts winning races again. Imagine the residual impact of an Earnhardt win in this Sunday's Daytona 500?

But Earnhardt dismisses his influence on the sport's popularity. "The sport don't ride on my shoulders," he said. "Jeff Burton said it best. If we weren't here tomorrow, there are guys in this sport that would carry it to wherever it goes and it would continue to do great things. There would be personalities that come into this sport after most of us are gone that will be as crazy and as good and bad."

A final thought: "I don't know why I got chose to be in this situation but I thank the Lord for it every day and I'm really lucky. I've won some great races. I grew up watching my Daddy win all them races and I didn't think I would ever be able to do it. So every one I win, I enjoy it like it's the last. I just feel real lucky that I got the opportunity to be in good stuff and live how I want to live. I've got it made."

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