Heading into the 10th anniversary marking the passing of Dale Earnhardt, his son powered his way to the top qualifying position for next weekend's Daytona 5000 and showed he will be a force to reckon with when the green flag drops.
By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 13) —The pressure’s off Dale Earnhardt Jr.—until next Sunday, that is.
In Sunday afternoon’s qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt edged Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the top starting spot in next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.
Turning a lap in 48.364 seconds (186.089 mph), Earnhardt claimed the 10th Coors Light pole award of his career and his first at a restrictor-plate superspeedway. He’ll try to win NASCAR’s most prestigious race for the second time in the 400th start of his Sprint Cup career.
What Earnhardt—and Gordon, for that matter—won’t have to worry about is racing for position in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Under the unique qualifying procedure for the Daytona 500, the two fastest drivers in time trials are locked into the front row.
The rest of the field for the 53rd running of the Great American Race won’t be set until the Duels are completed.
“The main thing (the pole) does for me is take the pressure off Thursday’s race,” said Earnhardt, who will start from the top spot in the first qualifying race. “I can go out and have fun and not worry about where I finish or getting a good starting spot for the Daytona 500.”
Gaining a slight edge through Turn 1, Earnhardt narrowly beat Gordon (48.396 seconds, 185.966 mph) for the top spot on the grid.
It was the third Daytona 500 front-row sweep for Hendrick Motorsports, which placed Ken Schrader and Darrell Waltrip first and second in 1989. Mark Martin won the pole for last year’s 500, with Earnhardt starting on the outside of the front row.
Rookie Trevor Bayne (185.445) was third fastest in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, followed by Richard Childress Racing teammates Paul Menard (185.422), Clint Bowyer (185.223) and Jeff Burton (185.071).
Bayne was elated by his strong run—and equally impressed by the drivers starting ahead of him.
“If I’m going to get knocked off by somebody, I’m sure the fans were glad it was Dale Jr.,” said Bayne, who briefly held the second spot before Earnhardt’s pole-winning run. “But to be sitting third behind two of the most well-known drivers in NASCAR—and Jeff Gordon my childhood hero—I mean, this is incredible.”
Bill Elliott (17th fastest), Travis Kvapil (20th) and Joe Nemechek (21st) all earned guaranteed spots in the 500 as the three fastest drivers among those required to qualify on speed. Terry Labonte also knows he will start the race, thanks to a provisional available to the most recent past champion not otherwise qualified.