Earnhardt Jr. takes Daytona 500 pole

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | NASCAR is back — and so is Juniormania.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. reclaimed the spotlight in Daytona speedweeks, winning pole position for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 186.089 mph in qualifying Sunday.

It’s a boost for Earnhardt, who is coming off a disappointing season and spent part of the past week facing questions about the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death at the track.

Earnhardt acknowledged that qualifying at Daytona is far more about the car than it is about the driver.

“We had a great car today,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t really have a whole lot to do with it, just had to hold on the bottom as tight as I could and the power and the body and everything does all the work.”

Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, qualified second. It’s the second straight Daytona 500 front row sweep for Hendrick, who put Mark Martin on pole and Earnhardt in the No. 2 spot last year.

The remainder of the field will be set after a pair of qualifying races Thursday.

Having NASCAR’s most popular driver lead the field to the green flag next Sunday could provide some traction for a sport looking to pick up sagging television ratings and attendance.

An Earnhardt win would be even bigger.

But Earnhardt said qualifying results weren’t necessarily a good predictor of success in the race.

“It obviously gives you a good idea that you’ve got a great car, but anyone can win the race,” Earnhardt said. “There’s guys that qualified outside the top 20 that have got winning cars.”

And Earnhardt said the pressure would be off him come Thursday’s qualifying races.

“I can just go out there and try to have fun, have fun winning that race,” Earnhardt said. “We don’t really have to worry about where I need to finish and where I do finish to get a starting spot for the 500. We can just go out, try to have fun and win that thing.”

Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, has fallen on hard times in recent years. He hasn’t won a race since 2008.

But winning the pole at Daytona could be an early indication that Hendrick Motorsports’ offseason crew shake-up might have the No. 88 team pointed in the right direction.

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