Earnhardt Jr. Wins Pole For The Daytona 500
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
The Earnhardt family’s heroic/tragic relationship with Daytona International Speedway intensified Sunday when Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted a speed of 186.089 mph Sunday afternoon to win the pole for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The pole was the first for Earnhardt Jr. in the Sprint Cup Series’ marquee event. But it was the second for an Earnhardt as his father won the pole in 1996 – five years before a final-lap, final-turn crash killed the seven-time Cup champion.
Earnhardt Jr.’s first pole comes 10 years after that sport-shattering day.
Earnhardt Jr.’s pole came in his first qualifying attempt with crew chief Steve Letarte, who was transferred over from the team of Hendrick Motorsports stablemate Jeff Gordon in the off season.
And speaking of Gordon, he posted the second-fastest qualifying speed Sunday and will start next Sunday’s race next to Earnhardt Jr. on the front row.
“I feel great,” Earnhardt said in the media room after qualifying. “I mean, it’s hard for me to sit up here and do all the talking because I didn’t do anything today other than hold the wheel. The engine does a large majority of the work, and the body on the car has to be perfectly situated to get the most speed out of the car. Steve here has to plan the car out, get the attitude of the car just right for the maximum speed.
“Those three things right there are the biggest players. I’m only maybe, you know, 5/10ths of a percent of what happened today. So all the credit really goes to all those guys that built the car and built the engine, put the car together in the 8/48 shop.”
Letarte said, yep, good car.
“We’re happy the car had speed,” Letarte said. “It’s a test of speed. Racing is a test speed. Today we had the most speed.”
Gordon, too, put up his big speed with a new crew chief – Alan Gustafson – standing by on pit road.
Gordon will be going four a fourth 500 victory next weekend.
“It’s always a great feeling to lock yourself in,” Gordon said. “This is the biggest race that we have. It’s I think 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 and Daytona qualifying. They just built a great racecar.
“I got the pleasure of driving that racecar today, being on the front row. Thought we had a shot at the pole, but it’s great to get Hendrick Motorsports 1 2. Happy for Steve and Junior, too. This is a great way to kick things off for our new sponsor, Drive to End Hunger. That will bring a lot more awareness to that cause. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things have gone this week so far.”
Sunday’s pole run by Earnhardt Jr. will surely add to the emotion surround this year’s 500 – the emotion generated by the 10-year-anniversary of the death of the man who had become the face of the sport.
His son said that he could not allow himself to get caught up in that emtion.
“I’m here to race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I understand the situation. I’m looking forward to seeing how my father’s remembered and honored throughout the week. I’ll enjoy that. I don’t really get into the hypothetical, fairytale sort of stuff.
“I just want to focus on my job, what I need to do every single corner, every single lap, what’s best for me at this moment, what gets me closer to Victory Lane on Sunday. That’s all I’m going to concern myself with.”
Only Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon are locked into starting positions for the 500. The rest of the field will
be set on Thursday in the Gatorade twin qualifying races.
On Sunday, Trevor Bayne, in his first ever attempt to qualify for the 500, was third fastest. He is driving the famed No. 21 Ford of the Wood Brothers Racing team.
“It was cool,” Bayne, who will be in just his second Cup race next Sunday and had early claim to the pole, said. “If I’m gonna get knocked off by somebody, I’m sure the fans were glad it was Dale, Jr. 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. I can’t thank this Wood Brothers team enough and everybody at Ford Racing and Roush Yates for giving us a car like this to bring here.
“Obviously, we were praying a lot before we went out there, so we got a good run. The winds were kind of calm and I think this will show everybody that we’ve got an awesome race car and they can work with us in these twins coming into Thursday. Maybe they’ll see that and they’ll know they can help us out and we can get a good starting spot in the 500.”
Fourth fastest was Paul Menard, who was making his first Daytona appearance as a driver for Richard Childress Racing.
His new teammate, Clint Bowyer, was fifth fastest.
A third RCR driver, Jeff Burton, was sixth to give Chevrolets five of the top six laps.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, the five-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, was 15th fastest.
The driver who finished second to Johnson in last year’s Chase, Denny Hamlin, spun during his qualifying run.
The winner of last year’s 500, Jamie McMurray, was 27th fastest.One Comment