Little E Makin It Look Easy

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Coca-Cola 600 Lineup

CONCORD, N.C. -- Move over Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's got a new golden boy.

With the crowd screaming him on, rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first pole of his career Wednesday night when he ran a blistering 186.034 mph to take the top spot for Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

Earnhardt was the 45th of 48 cars to try to qualify. He brought the crowd to its feet and drew an enormous group of followers as he made his way to his car, then patiently waited to run his two laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway.

When it was finally his turn, he raced around the 1.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval, knocking Jerry Nadeau off the pole and breaking the 6-year-old track qualifying record of 185.759 mph.

He then cruised back into the garage with a huge smile on his face as he ignored a request his father, Dale Earnhardt, made over the radio.


"He asked me if he could have this car," he said.

The answer was a resounding no. After all, Earnhardt Jr. was driving the same car he used last month at Texas when he picked up his first career victory.

It was only fitting for Earnhardt Jr. to bring the car here, his home track and the same race he made his Winston Cup debut in last season.


"Any chance you can have success and excel in front of a home crowd, it's a little more enjoyment," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Coming here, where I used to come watch my dad race, I never dreamed I'd be running around this track, or doing it that fast."

But here he is, a rookie on the Winston Cup circuit and the most dominating driver so far this year. He's NASCAR's only two-time winner this season and also pulled off a surprising win in last week's all-star race.

"We've had some bumps in the road and some weeks haven't been as fun as others," he said. "But we've been on a roll here at Charlotte and now we're getting a taste of some success. It feels pretty good."

Nadeau, who ran a fast lap speed of 185.122 mph, will start second.

"That's all I had, I had nothing left in the car," Nadeau said. "It just wasn't enough."

Bill Elliott was third, followed by Jeremy Mayfield and Mike Skinner. Kevin Lepage, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart and Kenny Wallace round out the top 10.

Elliott, who has seen young drivers come and go in his 24 years, said he sees a chemistry between Earnhardt Jr. and his crew that is very similar to one he saw with Gordon and his former crew chief, Ray Evernham, when Gordon won his three Winston Cup titles.

"He's been able to prove himself, whatever they've found together," Elliott said. "Looking back at what Jeff and Ray brought in, it's the same thing. They've been able to put together that line of magic and my hat's off to those guys."

Gordon qualified 14th and Earnhardt was 15th.

Robby Gordon, trying to join Stewart and John Andretti as the only drivers to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, failed to qualify Wednesday night, when the top 25 starting spots were set for the 600.

He had the 40th-fastest speed and will need to try again in Thursday's second round of time trials, when the remainder of the field was to be set. Gordon will start fourth at Indianapolis, where he plans to run 500 miles before flying immediately to Charlotte for the early evening start of the 600.

Others who failed to qualify were Ward Burton, ranked second in the points standings, his brother, Jeff, and Terry Labonte, who had a terrible run of 175.604 and spilled oil on the track, causing a delay in qualifying.

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