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Earnhardt Earns AMS Pole

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 5 2010
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the field in qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the field in qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Hampton, Ga. – As temperatures dropped in the fading evening light at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was cool with his lap when he climbed out after qualifying. He was neither ecstatic nor nonchalant, instead acting more like a driver who’s been to the top of the speed charts before and expects to be there again.

Scoring his first pole since 2008, Earnhardt Jr.’s lap of 192.761 mph was half a mile an hour faster than runner-up Kyle Busch. It was the ninth career pole for Earnhardt Jr., the second at the Atlanta track and the fastest ever turned by a COT chassis.

Will this continue a turnaround for the driver of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, whose three teammates have been enjoying victories and poles during Earnhardt Jr.’s long dry spell? “Hopefully we’ll start seeing the same type of improvements for our team on Sunday,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has not won a points race in his last 60 starts. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

The pole, his second since joining the Hendrick team, follows a front-row start for the Daytona 500 and a runner-up finish. He started in Daytona next door to teammate Mark Martin after a makeover during the off-season combined operations for the cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Martin, housed under the same roof at shops of Hendrick Motorsports.

“We’ve seen race teams completely change their identity in the off-season before,” said Earnahrdt Jr., in his first full season with Crew Chief Lance McGew. “I hope that’s what we’ve been able to do. Hopefully that off-season and the changes we made are what we needed to do.”

The team elected to make some changes for qualifying that paid off. “We went in a little bit different direction (after practice) and things went well for us tonight,” said Earnhardt Jr., who attributed his speed record for the COT was a combination of cooling temperatures and the new tire combination supplied to teams by Goodyear.

The driver said the lap was not as edgy as it might have looked, nor as edgy as those occasionally turned in by Martin, who will start fourth in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, just ahead of Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon (fifth) and Jimmie Johnson (16th).

“The track cooled down, there was a lot of grip in that tire. I hope that’s a good change and it will open up the track and we’ll be able to run around each other better,” said Earnhardt Jr.. “It was on edge but not quite as much on edge as a track like Bristol or somewhere.”

Runner-up Busch likened the Atlanta track’s high banks to an off-ramp on the Interstate. “Goodyear had an awsome tire from what I saw in Las Vegas,” he said, “They came here and did another tire test and found another good one here.”

A more mellow Busch, now a team owner in the Camping World Truck Series, was reconciled to being just under a tenth of a second slower than Earnhardt Jr. “We’ll work on some race trim stuff and get better for Sunday,” said Busch, who won the spring race in Atlanta in 2008 after leading the most laps.

After a DNF in California and finishing 20 laps down in Las Vegas, Juan Pablo Montoya was happy to be starting at the front of the field on a day without any dramas following a contretemp with teammate Jamie McMurray last Sunday. That’s racing, shrugged Montoya of his angry comments after contact with McMurray forced him out at Las Vegas. The Colombian was far more composed after qualifying. “Twenty minutes before the end of the first practice I was in the motor home,” he said of his pre-qualifying set-up.

Among the go-or-go-homers, Aric Almirola, Casey Mears and Terry Cook failed to make the 43-car field, where Michael McDowell was the last to get into the field.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 5 2010
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