TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s farewell tour has officially started.
All eyes are on NASCAR's favorite son as he races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, a place where he's adored by the fans and expected to win every time he gets in his Chevrolet.
The crowd roared Saturday in qualifying when he shot to the top of the board, but it was short-lived. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the last driver to qualify, immediately bumped Earnhardt to second. Stenhouse turned a lap at 191.547 mph to put the Roush Fenway Ford on the pole.
Earnhardt leads all active drivers at Talladega with six wins, but has never started from the pole. His lap was 190.780 mph in a Chevrolet.
"I'm pretty happy," Earnhardt said. "Great lap by Stenhouse and the Roush crew. Would have liked that pole."
Stenhouse didn't mind spoiling the Talladega party with his first pole in four years.
"It will be nice to lead the field to the green here," Stenhouse said. "It's a cool way to start the weekend."
Earnhardt announced last week he's retiring at the end of the season, and this first of two stops at Talladega has him nostalgic for one of his favorite race tracks.
"Thrilled with our car, good speed," said Earnhardt, who didn't seem to be joking when he noted a pole would make him eligible to run the preseason "Clash" at Daytona.
"Probably could have sat down and talked to Rick (Hendrick) about running the Clash or something, but let's see if we can't try to get another one later on this year."
There's some notion that Sunday is a must-win race for Earnhardt, because the start to his final season has not been great. He's also won only one race at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since 2014. So with his playoff chances dwindling, a victory would be a big boost to this goodbye tour.
"We have had a dry spell, haven't won a lot of races," Earnhardt admitted. "I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, then I'm probably going to get in there and make a few mistakes."
Earnhardt is 24th in the standings behind five finishes of 30th or worse this season. But he's got a strong mindset for Sunday, in which he knows he needs to be strongest and smartest in the third and final segment.
"Every move and decision, every slight turn of the wheel has to be the right decision," he said.
Earnhardt used his 2014 victory in the Daytona 500 as the example for how he needs to race at Talladega. In that event, he had an aggressive late battle for position with Greg Biffle to earn the victory.
"The only way I could keep myself from sliding backward was to run like one inch off the door and squeeze him against the wall," Earnhardt said of his . "It really kind of killed both of our cars. But at least he wasn't passing me. It was a bit outside of character for me to drive so much like a jerk, I guess, but that's what you're got to do. You've got to keep on cracking the whip, keep telling yourself, 'This is what has to happen, this is how I have to do this to make this work if I want to win.'"
THE REST OF THE FIELD:
It was a strong day for the engines built by Doug Yates. His power landed four cars in the top six, including both Roush drivers in Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne (5th). Brad Keselowski for Team Penske qualified third and Kevin Harvick was sixth for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Wedged in with Earnhardt and the Fords was Matt Kenseth, who qualified his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in fourth. Daniel Suarez, his teammate, was seventh.
"All the Fords look fast and it doesn't really matter where you start here because it's such a chaotic race and it's the luck of the draw on how you finish," said Bayne. "We know we've got a fast car and everybody knows we've got a fast car, so maybe they'll be willing to work with us."
After many lean years, Stenhouse and Bayne are enjoying a resurgence of sorts with Roush Fenway.
The team has been off the pace for several years and downsized this season to just two cars. So far. Stenhouse has a pair of top-five finishes and four top-10s. He's just a tick off of career highs in both categories, and it's fitting that his first pole since 2013 came at Talladega. Stenhouse failed to qualify for the Talladega race in 2014 in an embarrassing gaffe for the team.
But he said there's been much improvement at Roush that is noticeable in all areas of the organization.
"The culture at our shop is just different. The guys want to work there. They want to show up to work and work harder," he said. "They're seeing that working harder is making different results for us, so it's been a blast for Trevor and myself to drive these race cars each week.
"We plan to keep getting better and continue to bring better race cars to the track and go out there and lay it all on the line like we do every week. It's been really fun to drive, real special. There are a lot of good people at Roush Fenway right now."