Junior, Waltrip, Toyota, COT off to sizzling start in 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One word describes the opening weekend of the 2008 season: redemption.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first race for Hendrick Motorsports, showing in the Bud Shootout that he hasn't forgotten how to wheel a race car at Daytona.

Michael Waltrip showed he can play by the rules and end up on the front row for the Daytona 500.

The car, formerly know as the Car of Tomorrow, looked darn racy in its Daytona debut. And Toyota showed it has the horses under the hood to compete in its sophomore season after a miserable first year in Cup.

Earnhardt, Waltrip, Toyota and the COT all were criticized last season for various reasons. But 2008 started with a bang, showing things could change in a big way this season.

Earnhardt suffered through a miserable year in 2007, agonizing over what to do with the rest of his career. He wanted controlling interesting in Dale Earnhardt Inc., which brought to the surface the biggest family feud since Cain and Abel.

Earnhardt announced he was leaving DEI at midseason after owner and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt held her ground. Then Earnhardt listened to salivating suitors before picking the best of the best, Hendrick Motorsports, as his new home.

Meanwhile, his lame-duck season at DEI was going down the tubes. He failed to make the Chase, suffering numerous engine failures in races where he was running up front.

Earnhardt didn't win a race last year. The end wasn't pretty.

So the big question about him remained. Was it the car or the driver? Could Earnhardt win consistently in better equipment?

He aced the first test with his victory in the Bud Shootout, but all that earned him was a little momentum before things start counting.

"It's such a joy to have this opportunity," Earnhardt said. "Everyone on this team [the No. 88 Chevy] has dedicated themselves to this effort. I think it going to be worth it."

The same is true for Waltrip, Earnhardt's former DEI teammate. Waltrip suffered though the worst year of his career in 2007 as a new team owner/driver.

It started with a scandal at Daytona when an illegal substance was found in his car's fuel line. Things never got much better.

Now he has a revamped organization at Michael Waltrip Racing and new business partner in Robert Kauffman. Waltrip, who finished 11th in the Shootout, begins 2008 with realistic hopes of a third Daytona 500 victory.

It's not out of the question because Toyota has shown dramatic improvement on the speed charts.

Toyota drivers posted three of the top five laps in qualifying Sunday. MWR driver David Reutimann was fourth and Dave Blaney was fifth among the 54 drivers vying for spots in the Daytona 500.

Tony Stewart, in his first race for Toyota, was second to Earnhardt in the Bud Shootout. The addition of Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing is a big boost to the Toyota camp, but the other Toyota teams also are showing major gains.

"We all have a different mentality at the track and back at the shop," Reutimann said. "Last year we had our struggles, but we're putting all of that behind us. Thankfully, Toyota hasn't given up on us. I'm a firm believer in Toyota and I feel like we will be in the position to win this year."

Toyota, with the help of JGR engineers and engine builders, has found significant horsepower gains. But it also experienced a few engine problems at Daytona over the weekend.

Engines are under more strain with the COT at Daytona, resulting in increased RPMs and horsepower. Couple that with Toyota's improvement and the power surge has caused a few motors to break down.

If Toyota officials can keep the motors running, a Camry could make it to Victory Lane for the first time next weekend.

If the Bud Shootout was a preview of things to come, the Daytona 500 should be a whale of a show in the new car.

The boxier design of the COT, the only car in Cup now, makes the cars less stable on the track. But that's often a good thing for passing.

Drivers raced side-by-side up front for most of the Shootout. Passing the leader was easier, down low or up high, if you had the right setup and some help behind you in the draft.

That wasn't true in the first restrictor race for the COT at Talladega in the fall, but Daytona is a much different challenge. How the car handles in the turns is a big issue, but it also creates more opportunities for passing.

Along with better racing, the 500 could bring more danger. These cars are extremely jumpy on the many dips in the Daytona turns.

"The car is really a handful," Earnhardt said. "But the racing can be pretty spectacular."

For Earnhardt, Waltrip, Toyota and the COT, things are off to a pretty spectacular start, in a redeeming sort of way.

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