DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR is back — and so is Juniormania.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. reclaimed the spotlight in Daytona speedweeks, winning pole position for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 186.089 mph in qualifying Sunday.
It’s a boost for Earnhardt, who is coming off a couple of disappointing seasons and spent part of the past week facing questions about the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death at the track.
Still, Earnhardt was in an upbeat, joking mood after winning the pole. And while he understands the hype his presence on the pole and his family ties are bound to stir up this week, he’ll mostly try to ignore it.
“I wouldn’t embrace that,” Earnhardt said. “I’m here to race. And I understand the situation and I’m looking forward to seeing how my father is honored and remembered throughout the week, and I’ll enjoy that, but I don’t really get into the hypothetical, fairy-tale sort of stuff. I just want to focus on my job.”
Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, qualified second. It’s the second straight Daytona 500 front row sweep for Hendrick, who put Mark Martin on the pole and Earnhardt in the No. 2 spot last year.
The rest of the field will be set after a pair of qualifying races Thursday. Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Joe Nemechek also clinched spots in the field, and Terry Labonte is assured of a starting spot.
Having NASCAR’s most popular driver take the green flag first next Sunday could provide some traction for a sport looking to pick up sagging television ratings and attendance.
An Earnhardt win would be even bigger.
“I think that’s just kind of going to build the hype and excitement for next Sunday’s race,” Gordon said. “I love to bring back a lot of these memories about Dale and what he brought to the sport, his legacy, and it reminds me of a lot of the things I learned from him and the good times that we had. I think it’s very cool to pay attention to that and to celebrate it.”
But Earnhardt acknowledged that qualifying results aren’t necessarily a good predictor of success in the race.
“It obviously gives you a good idea that you’ve got a great car, but anyone can win the race,” Earnhardt said. “There’s guys that qualified outside the top 20 that have got winning cars.”
Qualifying was almost an afterthought Sunday, as drivers and crew chiefs were preoccupied with NASCAR’s reaction to the sudden emergence of two-car drafting suddenly becoming the fast way to get around Daytona.
With the drafting duos pushing speeds past 200 mph, NASCAR officials imposed restrictions the cars’ cooling systems Sunday evening.
It’s an attempt to make it more difficult for one car to push another all the way around the track because the pushing car’s engine might overheat; limiting the drafting tandems could reduce speeds.
Earnhardt said he liked the old style of racing at Daytona, where drivers had to zigzag through one big pack of cars — after all, he was pretty good at it.
“I prefer the other style better,” Earnhardt said. “But, I mean, it was fun last night. I prefer having more choices in my own destiny, I guess. Nothing against what happened last night. I thought it was an exciting race to be in, exciting ending to watch. Completely different than what we’re used to.”
Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, has fallen on hard times in recent years. He hasn’t won a race since 2008.
But winning the pole at Daytona could be an early indication that Hendrick Motorsports’ offseason crew shake-up might have the No. 88 team pointed in the right direction.
Although Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship last season, team owner Rick Hendrick reshuffled the deck for the rest of his teams.
Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte, who had been Gordon’s crew chief, and Earnhardt’s No. 88 team was moved into the same race shop as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I really enjoy the way the team approaches their jobs and what their goals are,” Earnhardt said. “I sort of like the way they go about business, how they conduct themselves. I’m enjoying everything I’m seeing.”
Gordon got crew chief Alan Gustafson, who had been paired with Martin, and Martin teams with crew chief Lance McGrew.
“The chemistry among the team and just seeing their attitude and everything, it’s been awesome,” Gordon said. “It’s been that way since Rick made that announcement, through the tests, whether it be the Daytona test or the short track test that we did. It’s all been very positive. This is just another thing that’s added to that, that chemistry and momentum, which is great.”