DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Another victory Thursday at Daytona International Speedway did little to convince Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he should be considered the favorite for the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr., who also won last Saturday's all-star race, dominated the first Gatorade Duel 150 to give him two victories in two starts with his new race team, Hendrick Motorsports. And yet his confidence was restrained after leading the final nine laps to beat Reed Sorenson by three car lengths.
Denny Hamlin passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart coming to the white flag to win the second qualifier. And in the process, it solidified Toyota's position as another favorite.
The races set the starting lineup for Sunday's 500. Brian Vickers, Kenny Wallace, Dale Jarrett and John Andretti raced their way into the race, while Kurt Busch used a past champion's exemption to round out the 43-car race.
The two biggest stories coming into the 150-mile races were Earnhardt and Toyota. Neither disappointed.
"I feel like we've got a shot," Earnhardt said. "Nobody's boastful enough, I don't think, personality-wise to come in here and claim (we're the favorites). 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 that group (of favorites). The Daytona 500 is a long, long race. You're going to pass people; you're going to get passed. So much happens in that race."
After struggling last year, Toyota came to Daytona with a vengeance. The car company not only lured all three of Gibbs' cars into its stable, other Toyota teams showed a lot more speed.
A year ago only four Toyotas qualified for the Daytona 500. This year, there will be nine, including the cars that finished first and second in the final qualifier.
Stewart led following a red-flag period that forced four laps of overtime. Hamlin was in second, and the two talked during the delay about holding off Jeff Gordon in third.
During the re-start, Hamlin moved to block Gordon and he used that momentum to pass his teammate.
"As long as a Gibbs car won, that's all I cared about," Stewart said. "I knew what Jeff was going to do on the re-start. I lost a Daytona 500 one year. I told Denny to do whatever he had to do to hold off Jeff and I'd go with him.
"It was just bad timing for me. That's the nature of the beast here."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: 50th running of "The Great American Race"
WHERE: Daytona International Speedway; Daytona Beach, Fla.
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
POLE SITTER: Jimmie Johnson
OUTSIDE POLE: Michael Waltrip
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Kevin Harvick
TV: Fox-Ch. 54