Dale Earnhardt Jr. is almost giddy, and then quickly realistic, after his qualifying run.
Sure, he’s won his ninth career pole. But the real race in on Sunday. Earnhardt set a Sprint Cup series record qualifying lap for the new car with a speed of 192.761 mph. It’s been 68 races since Junior’s last pole, 60 since his last win.
While Earnhardt admits he’s “real happy” with his qualifying effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he was also pleased with his laps at Daytona and Vegas. Although Earnhardt says the runs “build a lot of confidence,” his success in time trials has yet to transfer over to race day – with the exception of his second-place finish in Daytona.
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“I’m just hoping to see this type of difference over on the car on Sunday,” Earnhardt said. “I think we will. It’s just a matter of time. If we keep performing like this, it should start leaking over on our performance on Sunday.”
The pole is the clearest sign that the team changes between seasons have begun to work.
“We tried to make the right ones in the offseason,” Earnhardt said of the changes. “We tried to sort of forget about what happened last year and come into this season with a renewed sense of confidence.”
Confidence was certainly missing on the No. 88 team last year. Even after Rick Hendrick swapped out Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief for Lance McGrew in June, the chemistry was far from instantaneous. As the season progressed, Earnhardt would start races strongly, maintain pace throughout the mid-section of the race, but could never sustain beyond that.
Fast forward to 2010. The team rolls out of Daytona second in points then experiences axle issues at California and he finishes 32nd, 12 laps off the pace. Last week at Las Vegas, the Hendrick cars finished first, third and fourth. The No. 88 trailed in at 16th.
Again, the sentiment was, three Hendrick cars at the front “and Junior.”
Still, Earnhardt says there’s not one specific area throughout the race where he consistently falls off the pace.
"Every race is sort of different in how it goes. Over the end of the course of the last season and even into this year as we ran the last three races, we don’t really see a pattern to where it’s all right, or this is the thing that needs to be different.”
Despite finishing 16th at Las Vegas, Earnhardt said the team learned valuable lessons about seizing certain opportunities and missing others.
“We saw the opportunities more clearly I guess for the first time in a while of how we can be better,” Earnhardt said. “We know we missed some good opportunities on pit road and lost some spots but I didn’t have the car or wasn’t the driver to be able to make them up on the race track either.
“We just got beat down last year and we figured we would have a chance to start new this year. It’s just a better race team and they’re working really good together. I just hope that we can have some success because they deserve it."
Unlike Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch doesn’t believe he left anything out on the track after qualifying second on Friday for the Kobalt Tools 500.
Busch admits his lap of 192.280 mph was wide open.
“The only thing I’ve ever really been able to give a close description of is pick your favorite off-ramp — the round ones — and drive it as hard as you can drive it and see if it sticks,” Busch said. “That’s about as best as I can give a description. Here at Atlanta after about 40 laps it’s like doing that off-ramp while it’s raining. Good luck.”
Busch, who won this race two years ago, enjoys the 1.5-miler. He feels that Goodyear brought a solid tire for the race. Although some of the Toyotas have complained about a lack of speed with the engines, Busch says Joe Gibbs Racing has picked up the pace in the areas of chassis and aerodynamics to make up for any discrepancy.
Given that Busch just moved up into the top 12 last week, he’s confident the team can make up further ground on Sunday.
Reports came over the radio during practice that the track was exceptionally bumpy — particularly in the turns, with many drivers to perfect their lines away from the rough patches.
Jeff Gordon, who qualified fifth, said the bumps complicate the ride.
“It is fast and then the loads are pretty substantial when you drop it in these corners and get into the banking,” Gordon said., “You really load the car up and have to put a lot of wheel into it. Then you factor in the bumps (in Turns 3 and 4).
“We’ve really been struggling with the bumps … that is what we are going to work on. The grip is going to go up so it‘s going to get even faster and the bumps could be a bigger factor.”