You didn’t need to look at the scoring pylon to tell you who was fastest — the loud cheer emanating from the grandstand told exactly which driver had topped qualifying Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.
In his final race at the track where he’s won six times and is revered among fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seeking a final win before he retires at the end of the current Monster Energy Cup Series season. And he will do so from a favorable starting position after posting a 190.544 mph lap around the 2.6-mile oval to win the pole for Sunday’s Alabama 500.
“This place has meant a lot to me,” Earnhardt said. “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.”
Talladega is the middle race of the second playoff round, and while Earnhardt is not among the dozen drivers vying for the championship, he has been in the spotlight throughout the weekend.
On Friday, track officials presented NASCAR’s 14-time most-popular driver with an actual Chevrolet Monte Carlo his father drove to win the first of his record-tying seven Cup Series championships. And on Saturday, every time Earnhardt’s image was shown on the video board or he wheeled a lap around the track, his legion of supporters voiced their admiration.
The final season of Earnhardt’s career has largely been a struggle, and entering the concluding six races of his career, he’s still seeking a win. However, he’ll enter Sunday not only well positioned to snap a winless streak that extends to November 2015, but also be among the favorites to leave with the checkered flag.
“You think about that every time you suit up and get in the car, you imagine if that’s going to be the day you get a win,” Earnhardt said. “But, this would be a real important one if we could win for all the fans, all year long, we certainly owe them a win and it would be great to get them one on Sunday.”
Chase Elliott qualified second, followed by Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne completed the top 10.
Stenhouse bumped Earnhardt off the pole for the spring Talladega race, then went on to score his first-career victory. He was hoping for a repeat pole-winning run this weekend, but couldn’t muster the speed. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has won the past two restrictor-plate races and a win Sunday would automatically advance him the semi-final round of the Cup Series playoffs.
“That was a bummer,” Stenhouse said. “I was hoping we’d get another pole and I think it would have been cool to knock (Dale) off the pole again, but obviously this shows our Ford is still fast.”