DAYTONA BEACH, FL (Sports Network) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his highly- popular fan club, “Junior Nation,” something to cheer about for the start of the 2011 season, after NASCAR’s most popular driver won the pole position for the February 20 Daytona 500.
To the delight of his loyal fans, Earnhardt Jr. posted a fast lap at 186.089 m.p.h. during Sunday’s qualifying at the newly-repaved Daytona International Speedway. He scored his tenth career Sprint Cup Series pole. His last top starting position came in March 2010 at Atlanta. It also was Earnhardt Jr.’s first pole for a points-paying Sprint Cup race at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway).
“It was just a perfect situation for us when we went out there to go,” Earnhardt Jr. said. The car felt good, and the lap was really clean. I felt good about my line.”
Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 in 2004. Does he feel like he can win his second Daytona 500 next Sunday?
“I just want to focus on my job, with what I need to do every single corner and every single lap. That’s all I’m going to concern myself with,” he said.
Earnhardt Jr. has not won a Sprint Cup race since June 2008 at Michigan.
Dale Jarrett is the last driver to start on the pole and win the Daytona 500, doing so in 2000.
Earnhardt Jr. is looking to rebound after two disappointing seasons in NASCAR’s top circuit. He finished 21st in points last year and 25th the year before.
Just days after the 2010 season-finale at Homestead, FL, team owner Rick Hendrick made a crew chief swap for Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin’s teams
Steve Letarte moved over to Earnhardt Jr.’s No.88 team after serving as Gordon’s crew chief for the No.24 since the latter part of the 2005 season. McGrew paired with Martin at the No.5, while Alan Gustafson ended his crew chief tenure with Martin and now serves in the role for Gordon’s team.
“[Earnhardt Jr.] has a lot of confidence in my ability to crew chief,” Letarte said. “While I’m short on success compared to other crew chiefs in the garage, I have been able to win a few races with Jeff. I feel confident in my ability on top of the pit box, and I have all the confidence in the world in his driving ability.”
Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 champion, locked down the second starting position after turning a lap around the 2.5-mile track at 185.966 m.p.h.
“It’s always a great feeling to lock yourself in,” Gordon said. “This is the biggest race that we have. I think it’s more of a sign of the effort that was put out by the team, so I’m really proud of Alan and his group. Obviously, they have a special knack for Daytona qualifying. They just built a great racecar.”
It’s the second straight year and third time overall that Hendrick drivers will start on the front row for NASCAR’s most prestigious race of the season. Martin won the pole, and Earnhardt Jr. started second in the 2010 Daytona 500. Ken Schrader and Darrell Waltrip put their Hendrick cars on row one for the 1989 Daytona 500, with Waltrip winning the race.
Speeds in qualifying were well below the more than 200 m.p.h. recorded in Saturday night’s 75-lap Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, as well as Friday’s practice for the pre-season, non-points paying event. Speeds reached that high due to the track’s new pavement, cooler temperatures and bump-drafting in the two-car packs.
Hours before the start of the Budweiser Shootout, NASCAR required teams to remove certain air hoses to cool the engines in an attempt to lower speeds and break up the two-car breakaways.
Earnhardt Jr. selected the first starting position for the Budweiser Shootout during a random drawing held at Daytona the night before the race. He finished 19th after being caught up in a five-car accident shortly before the half-way point.
Trevor Bayne, driving a limited Sprint Cup schedule in the No.21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing this year, surprisingly had the third fastest speed in qualifying. Richard Childress Racing teammates Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-five. Menard is in his first year driving for RCR.
Jeff Burton, also from RCR, was sixth, followed by Ryan Newman, Martin, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart. Martin led the way in both qualifying practices at Daytona on Saturday.
“We probably were a little bit off than what we expected,” Martin said. “We had hoped to back up our time from yesterday, and we didn’t. It would have took that to be a pole contender or a little bit of a pick up. We were really good yesterday.”
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 15th, while last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Jamie McMurray, wound up 27th.
Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Johnson in last year’s championship Chase, had a bizarre start to his qualifying attempt. As Hamlin exited pit road for his warm-up lap, his car veered off course and went into the infield grass, causing dirt to fly up in the air. He was able to continue on with his two-lap qualifying run, finishing 44th in the 48-driver field.
“It’s not the best start to Speedweeks, but we know we’ve got a great car for the [Daytona] 500,” Hamlin said. “We’ll bounce back.”
While Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon have secured the front row for the Daytona 500, the remaining 43-car field will determined in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel twin-qualifying races.