There is a common refrain that this season’s Sprint Cup Series championship race has already narrowed to three contenders.
Don’t tell that to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt, who is 62 points behind leader Matt Kenseth after two races in the Chase, gave his title hopes and the spirits of his fan base a lift by winning the pole for Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Earnhardt’s average lap speed of 161.849 mph on Friday broke a nine-year-old track qualifying record – the 17th time this season a track qualifying record has fallen. Jeremy Mayfield set the previous record (161.522 mph) in June 2004.
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“We needed something good to happen,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “The car has been excellent all day and I just overdrove (Turn) 1 a little bit and didn’t really trust the car as much as I should have off of (Turn) 4. The car is actually a lot faster than that.
“We set things up well. Hopefully, we can finish it off on Sunday.”
Earnhardt still has eight races to make up ground in his quest for his first series championship, but he won’t get a break from Kenseth, who qualified second-fastest.
“I’m really happy for Dale Jr.,” Kenseth said. “It will be fun to share the front row with him.”
The pole is Earnhardt’s second of the season and 13th of his career. It’s the first time since 2002 he’s won more than one pole in the season.
After two races in the Chase, Kenseth holds a 14-point lead over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, and an 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. The next nearest contender is Carl Edwards, who is 36 behind Kenseth.
Earnhardt, 11th in the series standings, didn’t flinch when asked if it was at all disappointing to start up front but have to share the front row with the series points leader, whom Earnhardt is chasing.
“I expect our competition to be tough every week. We are not really going to count points and I’m not going to sit here and figure out how far I’m behind and come up with some equation I need to perfect to gain points each week,” Earnhardt said.
“We are just going to show up and try to run hard and be smart. If we can unload great cars like this it makes that all easier.”
Ryan Newman will start third on Sunday, Edwards fourth and Aric Almirola fifth.
The rest of the Chase field looks like this: Johnson starts eighth; Kurt Busch, ninth; Joey Logano, 11th; Kevin Harvick, 12th; Kyle Busch, 14th; Jeff Gordon, 16th; Greg Biffle, 19th; Kasey Kahne, 20th; and Clint Bowyer will line up 23rd.
Biffle was the most vocal in dismissing talk that the field of championship contenders has narrowed after two races.
“The Chase, from what I understand, is made up of 10 races and to be two races into the Chase and say it’s a three-man race already, to me, seems silly,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be the one putting my name on the line to say there are only three cars in this hunt right now.”