Monday, February 20, 2017

Daytona Int'l Speedway: Dale Earnhardt is Back! Starts in the Front Row for the Season-Opener Daytona 500


Daytona Int'l Speedway
Sunday, February 26th | 2:00 PM EST

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Dale Jr. jumps back into familiar surroundings with plenty of speed

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't take any credit for his qualifying effort Sunday, a 192.864 mph lap that put his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the front row for next week's season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

"Ain't much to it," Earnhardt quipped. "The car does all the work."

Earnhardt, twice a winner of the "Great American Race," won't be on the pole, but he'll start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, giving the team a front-row sweep for the second time in the last three years.

His previous wins in the 500 came from third (in 2004) and ninth ('14).

Earnhardt is regarded as one of the best at restrictor-plate racing but qualifying is a solo effort. There are no other cars off which to pick up a push or gain an advantage. It's all about horsepower. But there's a bit of technique required as well.

"The transitions are kind of important as far as feeding the car into the corner and also running as tight as you can on the apron without bouncing the skirt off the apron or giving up any speed, or just time adding feet to your lap by running high, at least a little bit, can make a big difference," he said. 

"But other than that, the driver, I don't think he's feeling like he's in control of too much. The car is doing most of the work."

Sidelined for the last half of the 2016 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt is eager to be back behind the wheel. He chose not to compete in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash, instead allowing Alex Bowman to field his entry. Bowman had won the pole at Phoenix driving in relief of Earnhardt last fall, a distinction that Earnhardt said earned the driver the opportunity.

But after spending "The Clash" working as an analyst in the booth for Fox Sports, Earnhardt traded in his suit and tie for a firesuit, and eased his way back into more familiar surroundings.

He was second-fastest in the opening round of qualifying; Elliott ended the session atop the board. In the final round, the No. 88 went to the top of the board with only one driver, Elliott, remaining.

"I certainly would have loved to have gotten a pole, but my boss man is happy," Earnhardt said of team owner Rick Hendrick. "I just talked to him on the phone and he's got to be thrilled with having his cars up front."

Elliott's final-round run, a lap of 192.872 mph, gave the Dawsonville, Georgia, youngster his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole. It was the third straight No. 1 qualifying effort for his No. 24 team, which also started out front here in '15 with four-time series champion Jeff Gordon behind the wheel.

"Obviously Dale is good down here, and we all knew he was going to be fast today," Elliott, 21, said. "That's no surprise. But I don't really care who it is. I'm not going to feel bad about beating somebody.

"It's cool to share a front row with a teammate is really the biggest thing I look at with that. But Dale is a good guy. I'm happy to share the front row with him, but happier to beat him, obviously, but regardless of who it is, that's what you're trying to do, you know."

Elliott and Earnhardt were the only two drivers to officially lock in their starting positions for next weekend's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The remainder of the field will be determined through the Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-lap qualifying races scheduled for Thursday evening (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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