DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement tour is making an emotional stop at NASCAR’s most famous track.
Earnhardt won his first pole Friday since Sept. 29, 2013, and will lead the field to the green flag in what could be his final Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt reached 190.973 mph during his fast lap, putting his No. 88 Chevrolet in the top spot for the Saturday night race. The pole also earned Earnhardt an automatic spot in the exhibition Clash at Daytona in 2018, giving him an opportunity to cut his impending retirement short and get back behind the wheel at the famed track for Speedweeks.
“I’ll talk to my boss and see what he has in the shed,” Earnhardt quipped.
Earnhardt was the final driver to qualify and bumped Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott to second. The front row is a reverse from the Daytona 500, when Elliott landed the pole and Earnhardt started on the outside of the front row. It was a strong day overall for Hendrick, with Kasey Kahne qualifying fourth. Wedged between the top Hendrick cars was Brad Keselowski, who qualified third for Team Penske.
Kevin Harvick was fifth, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.
All the attention, though, was on Earnhardt. No surprise for NASCAR’s favorite son, especially this weekend.
Although Earnhardt hasn’t ruled out racing at Daytona in the future, especially in the second-tier Xfinity Series, his trip to NASCAR’s birthplace is being treated like a career finale.
The track developed a “Daletona” mosaic in the stadium’s Axalta Injector that allows fans to create a piece of artwork to commemorate what could be Earnhardt’s final Cup Series start at Daytona. Officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in “The Great American Race.”
“A lot of great things have happened here,” he said. “A lot of drivers have made their careers here. It is something to be proud of if you are in the industry. It is a pretty fun race track.”
He admittedly got teary-eyed watching a replay of his 2004 Daytona 500 victory Thursday night.
“When I see those kinds of highlights or something like that, it kind of brings some emotion around,” he said.
Little else has affected him so far, but he expects the weight of walking away — he is retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season — to hit him during the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’m not having any anxiety about the end coming,” he said. “I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about my decision. I haven’t had any second guesses or regrets about that. So, I don’t’ believe I will have any anxiety as it starts to get closer to Homestead. I just don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss a moment that I should take in. I don’t want to miss opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me, everybody in the industry means to me.”
So he’s welcoming the weekly tributes from track officials and fans. He’s also trying to balance saying goodbye and doing his job as best as possible.
There’s no question Junior is the sentimental choice to win the race. He’s winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the playoff picture. Making it to victory lane at one of his best tracks would change all that.
“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” he said. “Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically.”
Even his fellow drivers know this could be Earnhardt’s best chance to turn around his season.
“I guarantee he’s going to be elbows up, sleeves up, and he will be the car to beat this weekend,” defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch said.
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