DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned the pole for Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway because his crew chief correctly predicted the weather.
Greg Ives instructed Earnhardt to go flat-out at the start of Friday’s first practice session because the rules state the field will be set by practice times if a qualifying session is canceled. When rain washed out the Saturday session, Ives proved to be a skilled weatherman.
“I asked Greg before we went out to practice what we were trying to accomplish in that first practice and that was the first thing he mentioned, was to go out that first run and try to put a lap down because the weather wasn’t looking real good,” Earnhardt said. “That was his decision. It ended up working out for us.”
NASCAR’s most popular driver is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and won this race in 2001. By earning the pole, he got first choice of pit selection, which he believes will be beneficial Sunday.
“That will be great to have that first stall because if we have a shot to win this race, we are going to need to be up on the front row toward those last couple of restarts,” he said. “I think that leading the race at the end is the best place to be. That pit selection will give us an opportunity to be more competitive on pit road trying to get that sought after position coming off pit road that final stop.”
Austin Dillon will start second and will be followed by Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Trevor Bayne.
David Gilliland will start sixth, and AJ Allmendinger, David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne round out the top 10.
Jeff Gordon will start 24th in his final race at Daytona. The four-time NASCAR champion, who is retiring at the end of the year, won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 and the May race at Talladega.
“I’m pretty bummed that it rained out — we were on a heck of a streak this year, with two poles on the superspeedways,” Gordon said. “I wanted to keep that going and I felt like our car had some really good speed and that we had a shot at doing that.”
Gordon is aware that this is his final event at Daytona but wasn’t feeling sentimental. He’ll be back to the track next year as a television analyst for Fox.
“It’s hard for me to really put all those thoughts and feelings into perspective, knowing that I have half the season still to go,” Gordon said. “I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until we get further down into the final part of the season, but this place has meant a lot. It’s going to be tough not coming back here and being behind the wheel. But I’m also really excited about calling this race next February.”
The qualifying washout meant Michael McDowell and Ryan Blaney failed to make the 43-car field.
It was a big blow for Blaney, who had an engine failure in his Daytona 500 debut but was the lone Ford capable of competing for the win at Talladega in May. He finished fourth and might have had a shot at the victory, but few drivers were confident enough in the rookie to work with him in the closing laps.
But that performance earned him enough respect that he might have been able to contend and get drafting help on Sunday.
“I was really looking forward to qualifying and getting into the race,” he said. “Some stuff we can’t control and this is one of them. This is the bad part about running part-time.”
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