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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasted little time in knocking off the rust on his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during his return to the track last weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr., who missed the final 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR Cup schedule due to lingering concussion-like symptoms following an accident at Michigan International Speedway last June, made his triumphant return with an impressive qualifying performance that puts him in the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. clocked in a speed of 192.864 mph, edged by only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott who will sit on the pole after earning the top spot with a speed of 192.872 mph. It marks the fifth time Hendrick Motorsports has swept the front row and while Earnhardt Jr. is thrilled to be part of the accomplishment he can’t help but think of what could have been.
“I think the guys are a little bit disappointed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They really wanted to get the pole. I’m disappointed too, but am absolutely thrilled to have an all-Hendrick Motorsports front row.”
Sunday’s effort marked the seventh time in his career Earnhardt Jr. qualified on the front row for NASCAR’s season opening race. While disappointed in narrowly missing out on the pole, Earnhardt Jr. is optimistic in potentially capturing his third Daytona 500 victory.
“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that,” Earnhardt said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”
Qualifying didn’t offer drivers the opportunity to run wheel-to-wheel like they will experience during Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Bump drafting and running three- and sometimes four-wide will be a regular occurrence on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Getting the feel of racing in tight quarters is something Earnhardt Jr. is looking to retain during Thursday’s Can-Am Duel – a pair of races that will set the rest of the starting field for the Daytona 500.
“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with those guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.”
A good run remains the ultimate goal for Earnhardt Jr. but inside he understands being back at the race track and getting behind the wheel of the iconic No. 88 could be the biggest accomplishment from the weekend.
“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.
“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well ”¦ it means a lot.”