Dale Earnhardt Jr. to start first for potential final Cup race at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start first for his likely final Cup start at Daytona. (Getty)

It’s going to be a good battle. I guarantee he’s going to be elbows up, sleeves up, and he will be the car to beat this weekend.”

Is Saturday night shaping up to be a fairytale ending for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup Series career at Daytona?

Earnhardt Jr. won the first Cup race held at the track after his father’s death in 2001. Saturday, he’ll start first in what’s likely to be the last Cup race he’ll participate in at the fabled 2.5-mile track.

Junior won the pole for Saturday’s race on Friday afternoon, posting the fastest lap in each of the two rounds of qualifying and beating teammate Chase Elliott for the top spot. A win at Daytona would likely get Junior into NASCAR’s playoffs in 2017, his final full-time season in the Cup Series.

The two drivers started 1-2 for the Daytona 500 earlier this year, but in the opposite order. Elliott was in position late in the race to win before getting passed and running out of gas.

Junior, meanwhile, wasn’t around to see that part of the race. He got crashed out after Kyle Busch’s car blew a tire and collected other cars.

A win at Daytona would likely get Junior into NASCAR’s playoffs in 2017, his final full-time season in the Cup Series. It would be his fifth — and potentially most important — win at Daytona.

“I know this is not a lot of fun to write, but it’s the cars,” Junior said when asked about the key to his Daytona success. “We have had some really, really good cars here. When I get the car that I need or when I’ve had the cars that I have had that were so good here, you could just do whatever you wanted with them. If you know a little bit about what you are doing, you can make some things happen and control the race.  I say that because I have had some races here that I haven’t had the car that I felt that I needed – me personally. And, I know without that kind of a race car, I don’t feel confident in getting the job done.  The car has always been really critical.

“I say that because I have had some races here that I haven’t had the car that I felt that I needed – me personally. And, I know without that kind of a race car, I don’t feel confident in getting the job done. The car has always been really critical.”

Clearly, Hendrick Motorsports has some fast cars this weekend.

A win at Daytona — where Dale Earnhardt Sr. died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — would be a monstrous boost to both Junior and NASCAR. Despite a lackluster start to the season, Junior would be a contender to move on a round or two in the playoffs.

And his presence in the playoffs would give NASCAR the opportunity to tout the possibility of Junior racing for the championship in his final season like Jeff Gordon did in 2015. Junior is retiring from full-time competition at the end of 2017, though he hasn’t ruled out a potential return to the Daytona 500 down the road and has a few Xfinity races scheduled for his own team in 2018 and beyond.

After he got out of his car following qualifying, Earnhardt Jr. took the time to offer up some advice for his fellow competitors. He lamented the lack of utilization of Thursday’s two practice sessions by the 40 drivers entered in Saturday’s race.

Because crashes can happen in an instant at a track like Daytona, teams were conservative during practice. Many teams opted out of the second practice and didn’t spend much time drafting in the first one.

“I’ll be honest with you, this track’s a little slick and starting to age,” Junior said. “I think all the competitors and crew chiefs need to probably consider spending a little more time drafting and putting more laps on their cars. I sure would have liked to have had that opportunity to get into a little larger pack yesterday. I saw some things from my car that are concerning as far as the balance and I don’t know if a lot of guys got themselves into that situation.”

Does that mean we’ll see a crash fest Saturday night? The Daytona 500 was full of accidents and wonky strategy. With drivers knowing what happened in February, the first 150 laps of the 160-lap race could be a tepid affair. And if Earnhardt Jr. is in contention for the win in those final 10 laps, no one is willing to rule out some Earnhardt magic.

“It’s going to be a good battle,” Kurt Busch said Thursday. “I guarantee he’s going to be elbows up, sleeves up, and he will be the car to beat this weekend.”

Here’s the starting lineup for the race.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. Chase Elliott
3. Brad Keselowski
4. Kasey Kahne
5. Kevin Harvick
6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
7. Joey Logano
8. Jamie McMurray
9. Ryan Blaney
10. Danica Patrick
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Jimmie Johnson
13. Matt Kenseth
14. Trevor Bayne
15. Kurt Busch
16. Kyle Busch
17. Erik Jones
18. Denny Hamlin
19. Austin Dillon
20. Daniel Suarez
21. Kyle Larson
22. Ryan Newman
23. Michael McDowell
24. Paul Menard
25. Martin Truex Jr.
26. Landon Cassill
27. AJ Allmendinger
28. Matt DiBenedetto
29. Chris Buescher
30. David Ragan
31. Darrell Wallace Jr.
32. Brendan Gaughan
33. Elliott Sadler
34. Ty Dillon
35. Cole Whitt
36. Corey LaJoie
37. Reed Sorenson
38. Ryan Sieg
39. Jeffrey Earnhardt
40. DJ Kennington


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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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