Shootout win, Duel victory just the beginning for Earnhardt

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- "I'm pretty excited about the opportunity to drive Rick's cars. His equipment, track performance and track record speaks for itself, so I'm pretty pumped up about getting in there and getting my feet wet. I feel some pressure. I hope it ain't that hard to get me to Victory Lane."

So said Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he signed with Hendrick Motorsports in June.

So much for pressure.

So much for getting into Victory Lane.

NASCAR's most popular driver won the first of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway, making him 2-for-2 in his new ride after going almost two years without a victory at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

He also won the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night, establishing himself as a favorite to win Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500.

"Looks like he's going to sweep Speedweeks if he don't break," said Kenny Wallace, who drove his way into the 500 with an eighth-place finish in the first race.

There was some concern that Earnhardt and everybody with an HMS engine might break 24 hours earlier. An issue with the camshaft and lifter forced all four of owner Rick Hendrick's drivers to change engines and start in the back of the field.

That was a minor setback. Earnhardt took the lead on Lap 18 of the 60-lap event when he passed former DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr.

Engines weren't a problem for his teammates, either. Casey Mears finished fourth. Jimmie Johnson, who won the pole for the 500 in qualifying, was in position to challenge until a late tire-wear problem forced him to pit and settle for 23rd.

Jeff Gordon finished third to Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart in the second race.

Wallace also had the advantage of a HMS engine, as did Furniture Row teammate Joe Nemechek, who finished 12th in the first race but made Sunday's 500 on his qualifying speed.

On any other day Wallace would have been the top feel-good story. He called making the 500 the biggest thing to happen in his life outside of his wife and children.

Or that honor could have gone to Brian Vickers, who gambled with a late pit stop and rallied to finish 11th to make the Great American Race.

Or to Hamlin for putting Toyota in Victory Lane for the first time. Or to three-time 500 champion Dale Jarrett, who drove his way into the race for the final time by finishing ninth in the second qualifier.

But when Earnhardt wins, everybody else seems to take a back seat. Now the question is, will they take a back seat again as he attempts to become the first driver to win the Shootout, qualifying race and 500?

Asked if he dared to believe he could be the one, Earnhardt laughed and said, "Dare?"

He laughed again.

"I feel like we've got a great shot, you know what I mean?" he said. "Nobody is boastful enough, I don't think, personality-wise to come in here and claim that. I wouldn't expect anybody to do that.

"But I think we've got a great shot. We've won some races down here, so we've got to be in the group if there's a group of them."

Earnhardt has won 12 races at Daytona, including the two this season. In 2004, when he won the 500, he fell just short of the sweep with a second in the Shootout.

Because of his success here and because HMS has been top dog on restrictor plate tracks the last few years, nobody should be surprised by his fast start.

Earnhardt certainly isn't.

"We can't really, you know, sing a whole lot of praise just right yet," he said. "We've got a lot of racing left to do, a lot of tracks to go to, a lot of work in front of us.

"We've just go to, you know, think now. We've got to think right now, what do we have to do to win the 500? We've got to keep the same attitude, keep the same work ethic, take everything one at a time. We should be fine."

Earnhardt will be if he makes moves like the one that won on Thursday. He went inside of leader Ryan Newman with nine laps to go to move to the front without the help of a teammate -- or anybody else for that matter -- as was the case when Johnson pushed him to the win in the Shootout.

I have enjoyed this relationship. Up to this point, it's been great, more than we ever could have dreamed of as far as the success we're having.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I almost didn't do it," Earnhardt said. "I wanted to try to win. I didn't think I was going to clear him, but I did."

Earnhardt is all about winning now. A major reason he chose HMS, outside of wanting to get away from stepmother/DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, was he believed the organization gave him the best chance to win the title that his dad won seven times.

The urgency in which HMS responded to the engine problem only strengthened his reasoning, particularly coming off a year in which he blew six engines at DEI. He never had that before.

"I was a little surprised the way they went back and responded to that," Earnhardt said. "They were all over the motors. It was really a four-alarm fire there for a second."

Despite his past success here, Earnhardt says this year feels different. He doesn't have the "what's going to happen to keep us from winning" feeling that he often did at his father's company.

"As I do more winning, you guys do more writing," he told reporters. "It's a lot of attention and pressure that comes with that."

So far, Earnhardt is handling the pressure just fine. He'll likely handle it well again in the 500, although that doesn't guarantee a victory.

"When you're out front, you carry a lot of attention into the next event," Earnhardt said. "The Daytona 500 is a long, long race and so many things happen in that race. Good and bad, you overcome things.

"You just have to take it as best you can and hope nothing is going to take you out of the race. The 500, you've just got to keep running all day long. You've just got to be there at the end."

So far, the end has meant Victory Lane for Earnhardt.

So far, the pressure he was feeling in June seems distant in his rearview mirror.

So far, his relationship with HMS has been nothing short of perfect.

"I have enjoyed this relationship," Earnhardt said. "Up to this point, it's been great, more than we ever could have dreamed of as far as the success we're having."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.