Well, it didn't take Dale Earnhardt Jr. long to realize that "yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!"
And yes, that Santa Claus appears to be Rick Hendrick and his incredible stable of people and equipment at his shop in the North Pole—er, Carolina, that is!
The 20th running of the 'Bud(weiser) Shootout' at Daytona International Speedway was an initiation of sorts for the recent 'hard-luck' Fan Favourite of NASCAR.
With his new team, new sponsor and new equipment - Junior won an exciting 70 lap race at the famous track which claimed his late daddy's life at the turn of the 21st century.
Powered by a Hendrick Motorsport Chevy powerplant, Dale Jr. led the most laps in a mostly uneventful full throttle showcase of last seasons pole winners and former Shootout champions, such as Bill Elliott and Mark Martin.
The "exhibition showcase race" was almost an all Hendrick affair, with Dale Jr. holding off a hard charging Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. the much maligned Tony Stewart, and his fellow Hendrick teammates Jimmy Johnson (third), Jeff Gordon (fourth) and Casey Mears (sixth)—all of whom provided Earnhardt Jr. and his #88 National Guard/Amp Energy Drink Chevy a basis of support to win the 'Bud Shootout' in front of an amped-up, pro-Junior crowd at historical Daytona.
Junior had not won a race since the spring of 2006. This race, albeit a non-points race was a monkey off Junior's back and Rick Hendrick can only smile at his off-season acquisition. His 'stable of championship calibre horses' now includes multi-series winners Gordon, Johnson, and the young and talented Mears.
After the race, which had no affect on the 2008 Sprint Cup standings, Dale Jr. (who appeared to be close to tears) had nothing but praise to say about his new-found Hendrick Motorsport teammates—especially back-to-back series champion Jimmy Johnson:
"I would not have won this race, if it was not for my teammates...Jimmy Johnson pushed me past Tony (Stewart) and I truly thank Jimmy for helping me win this race," Earnhardt said immediately after the race. "It feels great to get back to victory lane...especially with my new team."
During Earnhardt's. cool down lap, after his victory, you could hear him saying on his in-car radio, that he felt his car was capable of winning the Daytona 500—which runs on February 17th. A new team, a new winning attitude and a hungry Dale Earnhardt Jr. with the 'all...new...car...of...today' is certainly going to make 2008 an exciting year in NASCAR.
Forget about all that feuding between Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, the real feuding is going to be who gets to be the drafting partner between all those Hendrick Motorsport 'all-stars' with three laps to go.
I can only hope that Rick Hendrick doesn't allow his drivers to drink too much 'Amp' on the final pitstop; otherwise we may witness raceway mayhem that will make the Stewart/Busch feud look like a Scrabble match at a retirement home!
Bring on Daytona and NASCAR 2008, and may the best 'Car...of...Today' win!