Junior makes first trip to Victory Lane on first try for Hendrick Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes ahead of Tony Stewart and the rest of the pack to win the 2008 Budweiser Shootout. Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This isn't exactly what NASCAR officials meant with the 2008 theme of returning to its roots, but having Dale Earnhardt Jr. win his first outing for Hendrick Motorsports is pure magic.

All is well with the NASCAR Nation. Junior is back in front at Daytona.

Earnhardt thrilled the crowd by winning the Bud Shootout on Saturday night in the new No. 88 Chevrolet. He got a push from teammate Jimmie Johnson to pass Tony Stewart in Turn 4 heading to the final lap.

It's been a long time since Earnhardt looked this happy. He was beaming in Victory Lane, looking like a man who knew his life had just taken a turn for the better.

"Man that was fun," Earnhardt said. "I had a blast those last few laps. And I didn't win the race without Jimmie pushing me. I hope the fans enjoyed that. I'm so happy. It don't get no better."

No it doesn't, not for NASCAR, which has high hopes of regaining some of the attention it lost while Earnhardt was struggling through a painful end to his time at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"Dale Jr. is one of the best there's ever been in restrictor-plate racing," Stewart said. "I'm not sure he's not better than his dad now, in all honesty.

"I'm glad for him. Obviously, he has a lot riding on his shoulders this season. He deserved it tonight. He drove his butt off."

Earnhardt's victory was his first checkered flag in a Cup event at Daytona since his victory in the 2004 Daytona 500. Is it an omen of things to come? Five times in the past, the winner of the Shootout has gone on to win the 500 one week later.

Junior was in his backup car Saturday, but he had plenty of confidence about the Daytona 500 when he radioed his crew moments after his victory.

"What a team you guys are," he said. "This car was awesome. We may have the 500 winner here and not know it."

Saturday wasn't a points race, but no one on Earnhardt's new teams cared about that technicality. It was a victory in Junior's coming out party.

"Way to go out there," Rick Hendrick told Earnhardt on the radio. "What a way to start our deal."

Earnhardt had gone almost two years without a victory in a Cup event. His last win came at Richmond in May 2006.

"I don't know where to start," Earnhardt said when he reached the media center after the postrace celebration. "It's crazy. I had a great handling package and it was really fast."

He can thank Tony Eury Jr. on that one. This was a big night for Eury, also. Earnhardt's crew chief and cousin made the decision to leave DEI and join Earnhardt at Hendrick.

"It was like a storybook ending for me tonight," Eury said. "All our guys had that fire in their eyes. That's what gratifies me, when I can help somebody else besides myself. It was overwhelming."

Hendick Motorsports certainly paints a different picture for Earnhardt's and Eury's future. All four Hendrick cars were lined up to challenge Stewart in the final laps Saturday.

Stewart may or may not have slugged Kurt Busch in the NASCAR hauler Friday night, but he had no counterpunch for the Hendrick boys on the track.

On the last restart with three laps to go, Stewart was in front, but the Hendrick quartet was lined up behind him -- Junior second, Jeff Gordon third, Johnson fourth and Casey Mears fifth.

"I definitely needed some help," Stewart said. "It's hard to race against four Hendrick cars up front. But that's been the big question all along. How do you beat these guys?"

They ganged up on Stewart, but the Shootout was an indication that Toyota is ready to contend this season. Stewart ran up front all night in his new Camry, and Dave Blaney led the race in his Toyota with 18 laps to go.

Also passing the season-opening test was the Car of Tomorrow, the only car in Cup now. The Bud Shootout was the first race for the car at Daytona.

It didn't disappoint. The action up front was constant, with side-by-side racing for the lead and passing up high and down low.

This is what the designers had in mind for a car that has received so much criticism in the past from drivers, fans and reporters.

The race also proved teams don't need different types of cars for different track layouts, another goal of the COT. Johnson was driving the car he raced last year at Bristol.

Gordon and Johnson were competing with the third-string ride. Both drivers crashed in the final practice session Friday night.

Teams use their backup cars for the Bud Shootout, so they have to bring in a third car if it's damaged. Gordon was driving the car he won in last year at Darlington.

Johnson and Gordon appeared to be playing possum at the back of the field in the first 20-lap segment of the race, staying out of trouble and taking time to figure out what the cars needed.

When go-time came, they were up front, challenging for the victory as usual. Only this time they had another Hendrick brother to contend with, the one with the golden legacy.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.