Dale Earnhardt Jr leads the way for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr fittingly took the Coors Light Pole for the Coke Zero 400 with the last lap of qualifying in what will be his final appearance as a full-time driver at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr leads the way for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway
There won't be a dry eye in the house if pole-setter Dale Jr wins the Coke Zero 400 this weekend | Picture Credit: John K.P. Harrelson NKP via Nascar.com

It may be his last full season in the premier NASCAR series, but Dale Jr again proved just how good a restrictor plate racer he is, by dominating qualifying in his #88 Nationwide Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

During the first visit to Daytona of the season for Speedweek in February, Dale Jr had said he would consider quitting if he won the title this season. Of course, he has since made the announcement of his impending retirement anyway, and it would almost be seen as fate if he were to lead the field over the line at the end of the race this weekend.

His ability on restrictor plate tracks has never been in doubt, but in what could well be his final appearance at the famous old track, he was driving under more pressure than usual, as he knows this race represents probably his best chance to qualify for the post-season playoffs in his swan-song year.

From the start of his final qualifying attempt, the pole never looked in danger, and his lap of 47.127s (190.973mph) was enough to finish 0.044s ahead of his teammate, and who many see as the successor to his most popular driver in NASCAR status, youngster Chase Elliott in the #24 Napa Chevy.

Ford will expect to be in the hunt this weekend

Kevin Harvick starts in the top 10 as Ford look strong for back to back wins | Picture Credit: John K. Harrelson NKP via Nascar.com
Kevin Harvick starts in the top 10 as Ford look strong for back to back wins | Picture Credit: John K. Harrelson NKP via Nascar.com

Ford have been expecting to have a strong weekend, as their engines have shown consistent power on the Super-Speedways, and although they couldn’t get close to the front row, they do fill seven of the first 11 spots on the grid.

The highest Ford in third is the #2 Detroit Genuine Parts Penske of Brad Keselowski – another master of restrictor-plate racing – with a time of 47.297s (190.287mph), but still 0.17s behind Jr’s pole time.

Kasey Kahne’s #5 Unifirst Chevy completes the second row, with a trio of Fords next, in last week's race winner at Sonoma, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Joey Logano.

Jamie McMurray’s #1 Chip Ganassi Chevy is alongside Logano in eighth, and the Fords of Ryan Blaney in the #21 for the Wood Brothers, and the under pressure Danica Patrick for Stewart-Haas round off the top 10.

Toyota struggling for Pace?

Kyle Busch set the fastest time of the weekend in first practice but Toyota struggled in qualifying | Picture Credit: John K. Harrelson NKP via Nascar.com
Kyle Busch set the fastest time of the weekend in first practice but Toyota struggled in qualifying | Picture Credit: John K. Harrelson NKP via Nascar.com

Toyota, who has arguably built up a reputation over recent years for having the most powerful engines in NASCAR, surprisingly do not have a car in the top 12, with Matt Kenseth being their best starter in 13th.

Kyle Busch, who topped the charts in first practice – setting the fastest time of the weekend in doing so – could only qualify 16th, and the driver leading the playoff points race, Martin Truex Jr is a distant 25th on the grid.

Overall points leader, and many people’s tip for the 2017 Championship, Kyle Larson starts a lowly 21st

The leading rookie on the grid is Erik Jones in 17th, with his rookie of the year rival Daniel Suarez starting 20th.

Although many see the pole as merely symbolic in a plate race, as the lead will change many times as they all make the most of the draft, the number one pit stall is massively important.

Should there be the usual ‘Big One’ late in the race, then that stall could prove vital to Dale Jr, and his chances of taking the checkered flag on Saturday night.

His legion of fans will certainly hope so.


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