Joe Jennings, NASCAR Correspondent
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is brimming over with confidence as he grabbed the pole position for the 26th race of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series season. His rapid run took place late Friday afternoon at the Richmond International Raceway. The NASCAR superstar went out 44th in the qualification line, and he smoothly rolled around the .75-mile track at a speed of 127.023 miles per hour to earn the first starting position for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400.
Saturday’s race concludes the regular season for the Sprint Cup Series and after the points are updated, the field will be set for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
We have a lot of improvements we’ve made this year. It feels good to get a pole.
For Earnhardt, the pole was his first at RIR and the 11th of his career. He drove the Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.
“It feels good. I’ve not really been the best of qualifiers the last couple of years,’ Earnhardt said. “We have a lot of improvements we’ve made this year. It feels good to get a pole.”
Regarding the race, he added, “I think everybody wants to get the win to kick the Chase off, and go into the Chase with a lot of confidence. It’s a fun racetrack; we love running here. I think we’ll have a good car tomorrow.”
When Earnhardt made his rapid run, he pushed teammate Jeff Gordon to the outside of the front row in the Drive to end Hunger Chevrolet. His speed was 126.981 mph.
Said Gordon, “I got (turns) three and four great coming to the green (flag) and coming back to the white (flag). I just didn’t quite get through (turns) one and two the way I would have liked to. I actually got down to the yellow line a little bit earlier than I wanted to. I could have carried a little bit more speed in there. There is some speed left out there, and we will just see where we end up. It has been a solid day, we have a good race car, from here on out we are guaranteed a top 10 spot and we will see where we end up.”
Regan Smith qualified third fastest in the Furniture Row/Farm American Chevrolet and Clint Bowyer timed fourth in the 5-hour Energy Toyota. Their speeds were 126.910 and 126.808 mph, respectively.
Row three qualifiers were Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, and these two were trailed by hometown driver Denny Hamlin and teammate Joey Logano.
Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-10 qualifiers.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart qualified far back in 28th after practicing even worse at 41st and 42nd in two practice sessions.
Frustrated with his team’s poor performance, Stewart carefully chose his words when he said, “The most political correct way is to say it has been frustrating. I don’t think we’ve got a bad racecar when it comes to 15 laps into a run -- we’ve just got to get to that point. It’s not been a good day for putting up a big lap by any means. It is what got us in this position here. We will just keep battling with it and see what we can get.”
Stewart holds resides 10th in points 14 ahead of 11th place drive Kasey Kahne.
When the race concludes, the top-10 in points will be locked into the Chase field and eight drivers are vying for the final two positions – the all-important Wild Card spots. The eight drivers in order of points and their respective qualifying positions are Kahne (21st), Kyle Busch (15th), Gordon (2nd), Marcos Ambrose (22nd), Ryan Newman (14th), Logano (8th) Carl Edwards (16th) and Paul Menard (25th).
With two wins, Kahne’s position is a virtual lock, leaving the final spot up for grabs with Busch and Gordon seemingly wrestling for the coveted final transfer position.
The Federated Auto Parts 400 will be telecast live by ABC at 7 p.m. on Saturday/