HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing his best to forget 2009.
Not a bad way to start.
Junior will be on the pole for the first time in nearly two years today for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, giving the popular, second-generation driver another reason to believe that he’s left behind the most dismal season of his career.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” he said.
Then again, Earnhardt has more in mind than just starting races out front.
He wants to be there at the end, too.
“We are starving for a good finish,” said Earnhardt, who’s gone 60 races since his last Cup win on June 15, 2008, at Michigan. “That is really all we can think about.”
Earnhardt’s confidence was devastated during a winless 2009. His crew chief was fired midway through the season in hopes of turning things around, but nothing worked. Junior cracked the top five only twice and led a mere 146 laps in 36 races.
It wasn’t like he was with a mediocre team, either. Earnhardt’s three Hendrick Motorsports teammates — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon — went 1-2-3 in the season standings. Junior didn’t even make the Chase for the Championship and wound up 25th overall.
Earnhardt’s redemption season got off to a promising start: a hard-charging second-place finish at Daytona, where he’s had some of his greatest successes and was dealt his most devastating loss — the 2001 death of his father in a last-turn crash.
Earnhardt’s blistering lap of 192.761 mph was the fastest pole speed since 2007, before the boxier Car of Tomorrow made its full-time Cup debut. In fact, nearly everyone went faster than the pole-winning speed for the spring race at Atlanta a year ago.
“It’s actually crazy how fast it is,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who’ll start inside the second row.