Hanging on to his car for dear life on one breathtaking lap, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the fastest lap in NASCAR's new car since its introduction in 2007.

Earnhardt paced Friday's qualifying session at the 1.54-mile racetrack with a lap at 192.716 mph, good enough to edge 2008 race winner Kyle Busch (192.280 mph) for the top spot. Juan Pablo Montoya (192.106 mph) qualified third, followed by Mark Martin (191.814 mph) and Jeff Gordon (191.774 mph).

The pole was Earnhardt's second at Atlanta, the ninth of his career, his first since April 2008 at Texas and his third since September 2002 at Kansas. Tempering his elation at qualifying first, however, was the knowledge that Earnhardt is suffering through a winless streak that reached 60 races last week at Las Vegas.

"We're just hungry, so hungry to do much better on Sunday," said Earnhardt, who hasn't won since June 2008 at Michigan. "We qualified well in Vegas (fourth), and we were pretty happy to put ourselves in the middle of the company we were around up there in the top 10.

"To be able to do what we did tonight means a lot to us, but we're starving for a good finish and something like this to happen on Sunday for us - and that's really all we can think about."

Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, David Reutimann and Carl Edwards were sixth through tenth, respectively, in Friday's time trials.

Busch, the 13th driver to attempt a qualifying run, was pleased with his lap and thought he had a chance at the pole, but Earnhardt went out four cars later and grabbed the top starting spot.

"Pick your favourite off-ramp - one of those round ones - and drive it as hard as you can and see if it sticks," Busch said in describing a qualifying lap at the lightning-fast, bumpy speedway. "Here at Atlanta, after about 40 laps, it's like doing that off-ramp while it's raining. Good luck!"

Meanwhile four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last two Cup races, starts 16th. Series points leader Kevin Harvick qualified 35th, while Clint Bowyer, Harvick's team-mate at Richard Childress Racing and second in the standings, starts 18th. Aric Almirola, Terry Cook and Casey Mears failed to qualify for the 43-car field.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News


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