Earnhardt Jr. claims final-race pole
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the pole for his final scheduled Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the season, and the Alabama crowd has always embraced NASCAR’s most popular driver. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has declared race day “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” across the state.
The field will be led to green by Donnie Allison, a two-time Talladega winner and original member of the Alabama Gang, while driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Talladega officials presented Earnhardt Jr. with the car, which his father raced during his 1979 rookie season, as well as some races during his 1980 championship season, as a retirement gift.
Now, with the pole — the first of his career at Talladega — it has turned into quite the special weekend for Earnhardt.
“This place has meant a lot to me,” he said. “It’s awesome to hear those fans happy for us and hopefully we’re going to give them a lot more to cheer about before this weekend is over.”
Could he add a seventh victory?
“Certainly,” he grinned. “You think about that every time you suit up and get in the car, you imagine if that’s going to be the day you get a win. But, this would be a real important one if we could win for all the fans, all year long, we certainly owe them a win.”
Earnhardt is winless this season and didn’t make the playoffs. He’s got just six races left before he turns over his No. 88 Chevrolet to Hendrick Motorsports and replacement driver Alex Bowman.
On Saturday, Earnhardt turned a lap at 190.544 mph to knock teammate Chase Elliott from the top starting spot. Elliott wound up second with a lap at 190.412 mph in a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the front row.
“We’ve been fighting our teammate Chase and his group for poles at these tracks for a long time and it’s been a lot of fun to be honest with you, how these two teams have pushed and elevated each other,” Earnhardt said. “Really, all the credit for getting a pole at a place like this goes to the team. … I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron. There ain’t much to it as a driver.”
Joey Logano was third in a Team Penske Ford, followed by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Ford drivers took positions third through seventh.
Stenhouse knocked Earnhardt from the pole in May , and then went on to win his first career Cup race at Talladega. Stenhouse added a victory at Daytona in July, making him the winner of the last two restrictor-plate races. Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500 has made the Ford engines built by Doug Yates 3 for 3 so far this year in plate races.
So Stenhouse wasn’t thrilled to qualify fifth.
“That was a bummer,” he said. “I was hoping we’d get another pole and I think it would have been cool to knock (Earnhardt) off the pole again. But obviously this shows our Ford is still fast. We’ve got speed.”
It was a rough qualifying effort for Toyota, with none of its playoff contenders advancing to the final 12. That’s an odd development considering Toyota drivers have won the first four playoff races.
Eliminated in the first round were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, as well as points leader Martin Truex Jr. Starting position doesn’t mean much at Talladega, and Truex won at Charlotte last weekend so he’s already in the third round of the playoffs.
“You know it is superspeedway qualifying — just been a little bit off on superspeedway qualifying,” Hamlin said. “We obviously race pretty decent. It looks like the Fords are pretty strong, so we’ll have to race those guys tomorrow and we’ll just kind of see how we all stack up.”