DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The 8 and 8 is now two for two, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly a favorite to win the 50th running of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt won the first of two 150-mile qualifying heats Thursday in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, five days after he won the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway.
The other 60-lap heat was won by Denny Hamlin after he out-dueled teammate and two-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. Both now drive Toyota Camrys for Joe Gibbs Racing, which moved from Chevrolet this season.
Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, still hasn't won a points-paying race in 21 months. But after joining Hendrick's top-flight team this year, Earnhardt is perhaps in his best position to win NASCAR's most prestigious race since he won the event in 2004.
"I feel like we've got a great shot," he said. But Earnhardt, 33, was careful not to call himself the favorite in Sunday's race.
"The Daytona 500 is a long, long race and so many things happen in that race to every team, good and bad," he said. "It's going to be hard to win it, but it's going to be hard for everybody. We'll see what happens."
Indeed, Earnhardt will have his hands full with his teammates alone.
Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson -- who won the 500 two years ago -- starts on the pole. Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and three-time 500 winner, starts eighth after finishing third in the second heat.
Under the Daytona 500's unique qualifying format, the front-row starting spots only were determined Sunday, with Johnson winning the pole and Michael Waltrip posting the second-fastest lap in a Toyota to start alongside him.
The rest of the 43-car grid was decided by the outcomes of Thursday's heats. So Earnhardt will start third and Hamlin fourth.
Hamlin's win marked the first time a Toyota had driven into Victory Lane in the Cup series since the automaker joined the circuit a year ago.
"To give [Toyota] their very first win, and so early in the season, is definitely a proud moment," he said. "We definitely had a very strong car."
Defending 500 winner Kevin Harvick will start 16th in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Before Thursday's race, there was some concern in the Hendrick camp because it discovered a problem in their engines during practice Wednesday.
Hendrick crews changed the engines for all four Hendrick drivers -- Earnhardt, Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears -- and didn't appear to have further problems. "Within two hours they were already working on the remedies, fixing what we needed to fix so it wouldn't happen again," Earnhardt said.
Thursday's races were held on a cool, breezy day that appealed to the drivers because their cars grip the track better in colder conditions.
But it's expected to be in the low 80s for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, which would make the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval much slicker and treacherous.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett -- who plans to retire after five races this season -- squeezed into this year's 500 by finishing ninth in the second heat. He starts 20th on Sunday.
Some of the open-wheel racing drivers who have migrated to NASCAR and will drive in the 500 include Juan Pablo Montoya (who starts 15th) and Sam Hornish Jr. (19th).
But several others failed to qualify, including A.J. Allmendinger, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier. Part-time Cup driver Boris Said of Carlsbad also didn't make the field.