TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. has started on the front row in every restrictor-plate race this season. The driver of the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has won six races at Talladega Superspeedway.
But Saturday was special, because Earnhardt accomplished something he had never done before.
In his last season of full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Earnhardt won his first pole at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Touring NASCAR's longest closed course in 50.256 seconds (190.544 mph) in the final round of single-car qualifying, Earnhardt claimed the top starting spot for Sunday's Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC), the second race in the Playoff's Round of 12.
And though Earnhardt isn't among the 12 drivers competing for a series championship this year, that didn't prevent fans in the frontstretch grandstands from standing and screaming en masse as Earnhardt sped toward the uniquely positioned start / finish line at the end of the tri-oval.
Remarkably, given the success of the Earnhardt family at the massive track in the heart of Alabama, Earnhardt had no poles to show for his previous 34 attempts. But a day after proudly driving the No. 2 Rod Osterlund Chevrolet his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., piloted to his first series championship in 1980, Earnhardt Jr. found his mojo.
After Friday's practice, Earnhardt took a lap in the vintage car, a gift from the speedway to commemorate his contribution to the iconic track and to the sport. A day later, he earned his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season-the first coming at Daytona in July-and the 15th of his career.
Earnhardt beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott (190.412 mph), a Playoff contender, for the top starting spot by .035 seconds.
"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 and goes to the car and the guys that work on it, the engine, the body men; we've got an amazing staff back at Charlotte that builds some awesome stuff.
"I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron, but get as close to it as you can and make sure you run a clean lap. But there ain't much to it as a driver... This place has meant a lot to me. 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."
When he climbed from the car, the crowd erupted again.
"I got chills," Earnhardt said.
Joey Logano (190.374 mph) qualified third, followed by Kurt Busch (190.268 mph) and Playoff driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (190.170 mph), who is trying for his third straight victory on a restrictor-plate track. It was Stenhouse who denied Earnhardt a Talladega pole in May.
"I was hoping we'd get another pole, and I think it would have been cool to knock him off the pole again, but obviously this shows our Ford is still fast," said Stenhouse, one of seven Ford drivers who qualified in the top 10.
"We've got speed in it, and it felt good yesterday drafting with all of our other Ford teammates. The biggest thing is we have a starting spot up front, and that's really all we need. We're in a good spot because we can see the front."
Chevrolets and Fords dominated Saturday's time trials. Daniel Suarez qualified 14th in the fastest Toyota, and Denny Hamlin in 15th was the top Playoff driver in a Camry.
"Thought we had a pretty good race car yesterday in practice," said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch, who will start 16th. "We did some practice runs with our teammates - all of our Toyota guys and a couple other guys kind of jumped in there as well.
"We were fine, and I was hoping we would be able to show top-12 speed today, but we'll worry about tomorrow now."
Series leader Martin Truex Jr. will start 21st. Among the 12 Playoff drivers, Kevin Harvick will start deepest in the field from the 22nd position.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---