DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. A victory in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout revived the season-ending momentum that came so close to giving Jimmie Johnson a NASCAR Nextel Cup title in 2004 and has made him the favorite going into this season.
''This is a great shot in the arm for Hendrick Motorsports,'' Johnson said after leading the final 16 laps of the non-points event at Daytona International Speedway. ''A lot of work goes into this over the winter and this win will put a smile on everybody's face and make all those hours they put in worthwhile.''
The driver who finished second to Kurt Busch by just eight points last year the closest margin in stock car history took the lead 16 laps from the end of the 70-lap Shootout and held off a pack of charging challengers to the end.
''Of course, this win doesn't really prove anything,'' said Johnson, who has been the series runner-up each of the last two seasons. ''Until you have that trophy in your house, it doesn't mean much. But we've won on short tracks and intermediate tracks and this is our first win on a plate track.''
Daytona is one of only two NASCAR tracks where horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates are required to keep the Cup cars under 200 mph.
Ryan Newman grabbed a big lead when he took only two fresh tires on the required pit stop in the second segment of the made-for-TV race. But Johnson, with four new tires, was the next fastest driver out of the pits, getting out ahead of early leader Greg Biffle, who appeared to have the fastest car on the track most of the night.
But it was Johnson who tracked down Newman in just eight laps on the 2 1/2-mile oval. He charged past Newman's Dodge on lap 55, pulling Biffle, Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon along with him.
''Really, at the end, it mattered most who came out first on that pit stop, and my guys got it done on pit road and got us out ahead of (Biffle),'' Johnson said. ''He had a great car and when he was leading I really couldn't get a run on him. I knew that once I got into the lead he wasn't going to be able to get around me. It's just too hard to pass the leader.''
While Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet held the lead, the action behind him was furious in the closing laps, with Newman making a great move, diving low into the first turn three laps from the end to pass Biffle and Gordon and grab second place.
Newman credited the two-tire call to crew chief Matt Borland and said that despite the fact it didn't earn him a win it was the reason he wound up second.
''I think it was a good call. It put us a situation in which we could have won and it turned out pretty good for us,'' the Penske Racing South driver said. ''We didn't have anybody to work with, though, so we couldn't stay out front.
''We're just happy to come home second and it was a great debut for the brand new Dodge Charger.''
Gordon, who had taken second place away from Biffle on lap 66, was shunted back to sixth on the next lap, but came back to finish third. Tony Stewart wound up fourth, followed by Biffle, Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin.
The victory came in Johnson's third start in the non-points race for last year's pole winners and former Shootout champions.
Johnson took home the winner's share of $212,945.
Defending Shootout champ Dale Jarrett, who picked the pole position in a blind draw, led the first lap before Biffle moved into the top spot, where he remained until the scheduled 10-minute break after the first 20 laps.
Earnhardt, whose history in the Shootout includes a win in 2003, two runner-up finishes and a sixth, started 12th and began to struggle with an electrical problem midway through the 20-lap opening segment.
''We changed everything we could during the break,'' said Pete Rondeau, Earnhardt's new crew chief.
The quick fix appeared to work just fine as Earnhardt drove into contention when the event was restarted. But Junior, who will defend his championship in the Daytona 500 next Sunday, was never able to get to the front.
Biffle wound up leading a race-high 44 laps, holding the top spot until the front-running cars pitted on lap 46. He came out of the stop third, behind Newman and Johnson, and never got back to the lead.
A crowd estimated at 85,000 showed up for what is often a preview of the Daytona 500. The next event on the Daytona Cup schedule is Sunday's pole qualifying for the 500-mile race.
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