Dale Earnhardt Jr. has returned to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition in a big way.
Earnhardt will start outside pole on the front row for the 59th annual Daytona 500 (Feb. 26, 2 p.m. ET, FOX) alongside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott.
Remarkably, Earnhardt said there wasn’t any rust to knock off, although it was his first qualifying effort since Kentucky Speedway in July of 2016.
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“Well, it wouldn’t show up here if there was any,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a pretty easy job today for the drivers. The car does all the work.”
Although Earnhardt’s qualifying performance is a testament to the strides Earnhardt has made back behind the wheel, he couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed with the result.
“I’m not satisfied,” Earnhardt said. “I would have liked to get the pole. Relief that we’re sort of in a favorable position being on the front row.”
“I think the guys are a little bit disappointed,” he added. “They really wanted to get the pole. I’m disappointed too, but am absolutely thrilled to have an all-Hendrick Motorsports front row.”
Elliott was the last driver to make a run in the final round of qualifying, knocking Earnhardt off the top spot.
“It’s hard to beat the No. 24 at plate tracks in qualifying,” said Earnhardt. “They have a lot of speed. Alan (Gustafson, crew chief for No. 24) and those guys have done a great job over the last couple years to qualify well at these races. We gave them all we could, but came up a little bit short.”
It’s the fifth time in Daytona 500 history that Hendrick Motorsports has swept the front row.
“I didn’t know what we had as far as our car in practice,” Earnhardt said. “It’s hard to tell how you stack up against the competition. It’s a team effort. Happy to have an all-Hendrick front row.”
Next up for Earnhardt is the Can-Am Duel at Daytona (Feb. 23, 7 p.m. ET, FS1), a race he isn’t going to lay back with precious points now on the line under the new points system.
“You want to go out there and get those points,” Earnhardt said. “Our backup car is just as good as this racecar. We have to get in that qualifying race and learn what we can about the balance of our car. Try to pick up some points if we can.”