The Junior circuit
Earnhardt, Hamlin win Daytona qualifying races

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Denny Hamlin gave Toyota its first victory at NASCAR's top level, winning Thursday's second qualifying race to set up a Daytona 500 showdown between Joe Gibbs Racing and mighty Hendrick Motorsports.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first qualifier for Hendrick and will start on the second row of Sunday's race with Hamlin. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson is on the pole. Tony Stewart will start in the third row for Gibbs.

Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears start from the next two rows, meaning six of the first 10 starting spots will be filled by Hendrick or Gibbs drivers.

It pits NASCAR's top two teams against each other in a battle between Chevrolet and Toyota. Gibbs left General Motors this season when it grew tired of playing second fiddle to Hendrick, which won 18 of 36 races last year.

'It's going to be the epic battle, and it should be the battle of a lifetime and the century,' Stewart quipped. 'There may not be another battle of this proportion for the rest of my life, my career, for the century.'

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, who is retiring next month, raced his way into his final 500 start. He joined John Andretti, Kenny Wallace and Brian Vickers as drivers who made their way into the race through Thursday's qualifiers.

But two-time Daytona 500 winners Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott joined former open-wheel standouts Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier as drivers who failed to make NASCAR's showcase event.

They'll have to watch from home in what looks to be a classic duel between Hendrick and Gibbs drivers - something Stewart tried to downplay.

'I think you can't just limit to those two teams,' Stewart said. 'But like I said, if it helps us make a better headline for tomorrow, yeah, it's going to be the battle of a lifetime.'

Earnhardt has established himself as one of the favorites by going 2-for-2 in his Hendrick debut. He stole a win from Stewart in last week's exhibition Budweiser Shootout, then held on to win the first of Thursday's qualifiers.

Stewart seemed poised to win the second qualifier, but a late race caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish. During a six-minute red flag he talked strategy with Hamlin, debating how to hold off Gordon, who lurked in third place.

Stewart, who has lost more than his fair share of races because the Hendrick fleet ganged up on him, predicted Gordon would lay off on the re-start and try to chase the Gibbs drivers down.

'That's his normal deal, he won't take off when we do,' Stewart said. 'Watch your rearview mirror and react accordingly. Do what you gotta do after that, man.'

That's exactly what Hamlin did, sticking with Gordon before passing his teammate for the win. It was a big picture victory, and Stewart didn't mind losing out to his teammate.

'Great job, bud,' Stewart radioed. 'You did right. You did exactly what you needed to do.'

Now they'll try to do it again Sunday, where a Hendrick driver - any of the four - should be an overwhelming favorite to win. The team has shown zero dropoff from 2007 and appears even stronger with Earnhardt now in the mix.

But NASCAR's most popular driver - the 2004 Daytona 500 winner - wasn't ready to declare himself the favorite.

'I feel like we got a shot, you know what I mean?' Earnhardt 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 got a great shot.'