DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Two years ago, Denny Hamlin came to Daytona International Speedway as the guest of fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yesterday, the 25-year-old Hamlin beat Earnhardt and a pack of other veteran drivers to the checkered flag and won the Budweiser Shootout.
"I just can't believe it," Hamlin said after holding off second-place Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs, Matt Ken-seth and Mark Martin to win the exhibition race.
"Two years ago Junior invited me down here, and I got to see the race and stay in his motor home. And then two years later here we are in Victory Lane. It is just unbelievable."
Tony Stewart, the defending NASCAR Nextel Cup champion and Hamlin's teammate with Joe Gibbs Racing, finished third after leading briefly late in the 70-lap event. But Stewart did little to disguise his role in getting Hamlin to the checkered flag. He ran escort on Hamlin's tail for a significant part of the race, and coaxed his rookie teammate onward with a series of bumps.
"I had good help all the way," Hamlin said. "Tony pushed me the entire race."
Ken Schrader, the pole-sitter and the last driver to win the Bud Shootout from that spot, battled Johnson and Jeff Gordon early in the race, which was broken up into two segments: a 20-lap opening run, a brief intermission, and then a 50-lap sprint to the finish.
Schrader held onto the lead at the end of the first segment, but faded to finish 14th.
Hamlin, who was the only rookie in the field, started just seven races last year but made the Bud Shootout field based on his claiming the pole at the Phoenix race last November. He started 11th in yesterday's race and followed the stern advice of Stewart, who cautioned Hamlin to earn the respect of the veteran field by driving smart.
"Tony was great and he told me I had a fast enough car to win this thing, but I just had to be patient and not try and do too much, too soon," Hamlin said."Really, all I wanted to do today was to go out and race with these guys and earn their respect before the 500. I hope I did that."
With 30 laps to go, Kyle Busch had the lead after wrestling it away from Michael Waltrip. When Busch pitted, Hamlin moved up on Waltrip's bumper, with Stewart right behind. Hamlin was in the lead with 19 laps remaining, and the whole field got a good look at the bright yellow stickers on his rear bumper that designate rookies on the track.
Ryan Newman pressed Hamlin with a dozen laps left, and with just six to go it was Earnhardt chasing Hamlin at close to 190 mph.
Stewart took the lead on the outside with just four laps left, and after a brief caution period for debris on the track, Hamlin went back in front with two laps left in the race.
Johnson could not get enough push to get around Hamlin on the outside, while Earnhardt worked from behind, and with Stewart pushing, Hamlin brought home the victory.
"He drove a smart race, he was patient and I thought he did everything right," Stewart said.
Hamlin was running in the Busch Series last year when a shake-up at Gibbs sent Jason Leffler out the door and left a driver's seat vacant. After Terry Labonte and J.J. Yeley did stints in the car, Hamlin got the last seven races of the year, and his three top-10 finishes earned him a full-time ride for 2006, and Stewart as a teammate.
Stewart was followed across the start-finish line by Scott Riggs who came in fourth, with Johnson fifth. Runner-up Earnhardt found the rough-and-tumble affair to his liking.
"It was wild, and we had a blast out there," Earnhardt said. "There was a lot of beating and banging going on, and that's not what you want to be in the middle of, but it's a necessary evil. If we don't race like that and all stay single file, nobody would come out to see us race."
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