Junior Wins In First Race For Hendrick

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning his first race with Hendrick Motorsports
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Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had barely crossed the start-finish line after winning the Budweiser Shootout when he delivered a message to new boss Rick Hendrick via his in-car radio. “Get your ass to victory lane!” hollered Earnhardt, the mixture of joy and relief palpable in his voice after winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for the first time in nearly two years.This was exactly what Earnhardt and Hendrick had planned for and hoped for when NASCAR’s most popular driver signed with NASCAR’s most successful team late last season, creating a marriage that literally millions of passionate Earnhardt fans also hoped would result in triumph after a couple of years of frustration at Dale Earnhardt Inc.And as the crowd at Daytona International Speedway went wild with their hero heading to victory lane, it was clear that the pairing of Earnhardt and Hendrick just might deliver what all parties had envisioned after all.“What a way to start the deal, baby,” an equally happy car owner Hendrick told his driver.And what a way to kick off a partnership that began with sky-high expectations from the owner, the driver, the fans and the media. But if Saturday night’s Shootout, Earnhardt’s first race for Hendrick Motorsports, is any indication, it’s a harbinger of good things to come for the team in 2008.“I had a blast. I had a really, really good race car,” said Earnhardt. “… I’ve got to thank my team for building a beautiful race car and they did such a good job all winter and everybody back at Hendrick has worked so hard. This is great for us, man. This is exactly what we needed coming out of the gate. I hope the fans enjoyed that race. It was fun for me. … We’ve had such a long off-season. This makes it all worth it.”Both Hendrick and Earnhardt admitted that they had felt the weight of lofty expectations, but Saturday night’s victory lightened the load considerably.“There are times where I feel a whole lot of pressure and get a word or two from Rick and I’m alright,” said Earnhardt.

For Hendrick, who has fielded the championship Cup team the last two years and has won a total of seven Cup titles in the last 13 seasons, the question of chemistry – how would the free-spirited Earnhardt and his cousin, crew chief and best buddy Tony Eury Jr. fit in with the polished corporate Hendrick squad? – is no longer an issue.

“The chemistry is unbelievable, and that’s the hard part,” said Hendrick. “When you see all those other three drivers come to victory lane, and you see him (Earnhardt) come in early for the tests. The commitment that these two guys have put in. He’s answered the question to me with a bold statement. He’s as hungry and committed as anybody who’s ever sat down in one of my race cars.”

And for the rest of the competition in the Sprint Cup Series, that could make for a very long 2008. (by Tom Jensen)

This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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