The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. started from pole position was in the 2011 Daytona 500, 60 races ago, but on Friday evening he posted a lap of 21.256s (127.023mph) at the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway to edge his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon off provisional pole in the final seconds of the time trials.
"It feels good to get a pole," beamed NASCAR's most popular driver. "It gives us a great starting spot for tomorrow we feel pretty confident about the car after practice today. Starting up front is an advantage and we will get us a nice little pit stall too. I'm just happy we are performing well and looking forward to the race.
“The car drove really good in that qualifying run," he continued. "We have been working over the last two years to improve. We weren't very good last year in qualifying all season. This year we have made some gains, so it feels good to get a pole position and know that we are improving and doing something right there."
Earnhardt added that it was rather strange that he'd never started from pole position at Richmond at the past
"Yeah, that is a bit surprising that I haven't had a pole here ever considering that I do count this in the top five or top 10 of my favourite tracks," he said. "It's a fun race track; we love running here. I think we'll have a good car tomorrow."
This weekend's Federated Auto Parts 400 race at Richmond is the final event before the Chase cut-off, which finalised the dozen drivers who will be fighting for the Sprint Cup championship for the final ten races of 2012. Nine places are already locked, with Tony Stewart also all-but assured of finishing in the top ten and booking a place in the battle to retain his title.
The crucial openings left in the Chase are the two wild card spots for those with the most wins between 11th and 20th in the standings. At the moment, Earnhardt and Gordon's team mate Kasey Kahne has booked himself a place in the Chase by having two wins so far in 2012 despite only qualifying in 21st position for this weekend's race.
"I feel a lot better about it this time but we need to perform and do a good job Saturday night," said Kahne, who said that ideally he would like to oust Stewart from the top ten and leave the reigning champion squeaking in on a wild card instead. "I'd like to get in the top 10. If we run really well and have a shot at winning the race and Tony has a bad race that gives us a shot. It'll be interesting how it all works out."
But the final spot remains very much wide open with several drivers having one win apiece and now dependant on a good night at Richmond to see them through. The wild card is currently provisionally in the hands of Kyle Busch, but Gordon's front row start alongside Earnhardt puts him in with a much better chance of wresting that from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who qualified back in 15th.
"I think this is a big mission accomplishment for us," he said. "It has been a solid day, we have a good race car.
"I feel like we have a couple of different jobs," he explained. "Number one is just win the race, right? That's our job every weekend. But, we need to put pressure on our competitors. Pressure on the guys we are going to have to beat to win this race, as well as pressure on the guys we are battling with to make this Chase.