Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole position on Friday for the 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola set for Saturday night, his final Daytona International Speedway race in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition.
Winning the pole gives Earnhardt a berth in the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash, a non-points event held each February at DIS and only minutes after qualifying was complete on Friday, he hinted that he would consider returning for the Clash. He had already said earlier this season that if he won a pole, he would consider entering the Clash.
“I’ll have to talk to the boss (team owner Rick Hendrick),” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt is retiring from full-time competition after this season. He comes into the Coke Zero 400 with 17 victories in his career at DIS – two apiece in the DAYTONA 500 and Coke Zero 400.
“It’s a great race car,” Earnhardt said of his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS. “But there are still a lot of things to do before we see the checkered flag. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Earnhardt led both rounds of qualifying, topping out at 190.973 mph in the second round. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott (No. 24 NAPA Patriotic Chevrolet SS) will start on the outside of the front row, after qualifying at 190.795.
Earnhardt credited some in-house competition with Elliott as a key to winning the pole.
“We’ve been pushing each other hard the last [two] years at Daytona and Talladega,” Earnhardt said.
Several hours before qualifying on Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. addressed the media in a press conference that was emotional, introspective – and obviously meaningful. He talked about his past successes at Daytona International Speedway, giving detailed descriptions about the dynamics of restrictor-plate racing. But he also summed up the personal appeal the 2.5-mile tri-oval holds for him:
“It’s a pretty fun race track. It’s a challenging track. A lot of great things have happened here. It’s something to be proud of. There’s a lot of great history here.”
Prior to the press conference, Speedway President Chip Wile presented Earnhardt with a painting of three cars he drove to victory on the high banks: the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet from the 2014 DAYTONA 500; the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet from the 2010 Coca-Cola Firecracker 250; and the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet from the 2001 Coke Zero 400.
Earnhardt called those his three favorite races at DIS. And his choice as his absolute favorite surprised no one — the 2001 Coke Zero 400, a victory that came only four-and-a-half months after his father Dale Earnhardt died following a last-lap accident in the DAYTONA 500.
“That’s probably my favorite, to be honest, because of the circumstances,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not the biggest race. It’s not the DAYTONA 500. But because of the circumstances, that was pretty important.”
Tickets for the 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola and other Daytona International Speedway events can be purchased online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
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