Earnhardt Jr on pole at Daytona

by Gordon Kirby on 14th February 2011

(Following a crash in Wednesday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice Dale Earnhardt Jr will now start from the back of the grid as he will have to use a different car).

Dale Earnhardt Jr will start from pole position in the Daytona 500 NASCAR season-opener on Sunday. Earnhardt beat Hendrick Chevrolet team-mate Jeff Gordon to pole last Sunday afternoon with a lap of 48.36 seconds, averaging 186.09mph. Daytona’s track record was set back in 1987 by Bill Elliott, who lapped the high-banked 2.5-mile tri-oval in the Elliott family Ford in 42.783sec (210.364mph) at a time when there were no restrictor plates in NASCAR.

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This is Earnhardt’s first Daytona 500 pole and the race will be his 400th NASCAR Sprint Cup start. Dale Jr is by far NASCAR’s most popular driver, winning the award the last eight consecutive years, so his presence on pole should help draw a big crowd and TV ratings for the race.

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Saturday night’s non-championship Budweiser Shootout for last year’s race and pole winners was won by Kurt Busch in one of Roger Penske’s Dodges. Incredibly, this was 2004 champion Busch’s first win at Daytona and came in his debut aboard the yellow Shell/Pennzoil car he’s racing this year. In the closing laps Busch was running third amid the leading four-car train and he timed the run to the chequered flag off turn four perfectly, pulling out to draft past leaders Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin on the high side.

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Last year’s 500 winner Jamie McMurray helped Busch by precisely following the Penske driver’s move. McMurray pushed Busch past Newman, as Hamlin tried to pass Newman at the bottom of the banking. Hamlin crossed the line a few millimetres ahead but went down onto the apron and below the yellow line – an illegal move in NASCAR. Thus Busch took the win from McMurray, with Newman finishing third and Hamlin moved back to 12th, classified as the last driver to complete the full 75 laps.

Twenty-four cars started the Shootout, which was the first NASCAR race on the repaved Daytona track. Practice and qualifying speeds remained similar to recent years but the drivers quickly discovered that they could run 20mph quicker in a two-car draft. Everyone searched for a ‘buddy’ to work with as the race wore on, and Busch found the perfect man in McMurray.

“He stuck with us and had an unbelievable amount of power to push us and keep us in the mix,” said Busch. “When you have a friend like that with this two-car draft, that’s what it takes. It’s an unbelievable experience to try to manage the cars in front and the car behind in this whole new game.”

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For 23 years NASCAR’s races at the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways have been run with restrictor plates, cutting power almost in half. It’s a game the drivers dislike but have accepted and learned to adapt to. The fresh pavement at Daytona has reshuffled the deck again, which is just fine with NASCAR, where ‘the show’ is what it’s all about. Next weekend’s 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is unlikely to provide any kind of preview of the rest of the season, but will almost surely provide a surprise or different winner to be determined in the race’s closing seconds.

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