DOVER, Del. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched and waited, but after several close calls late in Friday’s qualifying session at Dover International Speedway, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet had the pole for Sunday’s AAA 400, the third race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
And if second-place qualifier, series leader and Earnhardt’s “worry-wart” friend Matt Kenseth was disappointed at falling just short of Earnhardt’s track-record speed, so were those looking for a weakness in Kenseth’s performance.
Earnhardt toured the Monster Mile in 22.243 seconds (161.849 mph) erasing Jeremy Mayfield’s 2004 mark of 161.522 mph. Kenseth was .006 seconds slower at 161.805 mph. Fellow Chase drivers Ryan Newman (161.740 mph) and Carl Edwards (161.609 mph) qualified third and fourth, respectively, with Aric Almirola, who matched Edwards at 161.609 mph, claiming the fifth starting spot.
The Coors Light pole award was Earnhardt’s first at Dover, his second of the season and the 13th of his career. It’s the first time since 2002 that the sport’s most popular driver has won more than one pole in a season. For the 17th time this season, a track qualifying record fell.
Yet Earnhardt felt he hadn’t quite gotten the most out of his lap and waited anxiously as the 17 drivers who followed him in the qualifying order tried to knock him off the provisional pole.
“I was expecting to put a good lap down,” Earnhardt said. “I thought we’d be competitive enough to get inside the top 10 pretty easily… I made a couple of small errors out in the car, but you never drive every lap perfectly. You always kind of wish you could have done things a little differently. I think the car had maybe another half a tenth (of a second) or a tenth in it….
“I watched the lap tracker on a couple of guys. The 99 (Edwards), they were a tenth-and-a-half better than us by the time they got into Turn 3 or the middle of 3 and 4. So, yeah, I thought there was a good amount of time left out there for a lot of guys, myself included.”
When Kenseth heard he had fallen .006 off the pole-winning lap, he radioed, “My bad,” to his team, but changing conditions had more to do with Kenseth’s second-place effort.
“I feel bad we missed the pole by just that little bit,” Kenseth said. “(Crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) and I both had a feeling it was going to go like that when we saw the sun pop out before we left (on the qualifying run). It just got too free and lost too much time…
“I felt like from the seat I got everything it had in it… Gosh, we just missed it by a little bit — just too loose, just couldn’t stay in the gas.”
Nevertheless, the driver who has won the first two Chase races will start beside Earnhardt on the front row. Though Kenseth has enjoyed unqualified success in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt describes his long-time friend as a glass-half-empty kind of guy.
“Matt never would expect things to go this well,” Earnhardt said. “I’m always having to pump him up, tell him how good things are going to be. He’s always a worry-wart. I guess that’s the best way to describe him…
“He’s having a great year, but hopefully we can beat him. We want to get up there and regain our ground and get back into this thing if we can.”
Earnhardt enters Sunday’s race 11th in the standings, 62 points behind Kenseth.
Behind Earnhardt, Kenseth, Newman and Edwards, other Chase drivers qualified as follows: Jimmie Johnson, 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, 23rd.