published Friday, March 5th, 2010

Junior on the pole for Atlanta race

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits in his car after qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Friday, March 5, 2010. Earnhardt will start on the pole. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the pole for the first time in nearly two years. He's hoping it will lead to Victory Lane.

Earnhardt claimed the pole Friday night for the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a blistering speed of 192.761 mph. It will be the first time Junior has taken green at the head of a Sprint Cup field since the April 2008 race at Texas.

"It's good to be on the pole and I'm real proud of it," Earnhardt said. "Getting a pole anywhere is good for our team. We're so hungry to do well on Sunday."

He's coming off a miserable season in which he failed to win a race, cracked the top 10 only five times, led a mere 146 laps in 36 races and finished 25th in the overall standings — despite racing for Hendrick Motorsports, the best team in the business.

After a major shake-up within his group, Earnhardt is hoping to be a Chase contender in 2010. He hasn't won a race since June 15, 2008, at Michigan.

"You've just got to try to be confident," he said. "We got beat down last year. We figured we'd have a chance to start new this year. It's a better race team. We're working well together. It's a really, really good group of guys and I just hope we have success. They deserve it."

Taking advantage of a chilly 50-degree night that boosted speeds on the high-banked oval, Earnhardt put up a lap that was faster than any pole-winning speed since Martin Truex Jr. won the Texas pole on Nov. 4, 2007, at 193.105, before the full-time introduction of the Car of Tomorrow.

Mark Martin was the pole-sitter last year in the spring event at Atlanta with a speed of 187.045. He went much faster this time (191.814) but it was only good enough for fourth.

Kyle Busch (192.280) will start from the outside of the front row, beating out Juan Pablo Montoya (192.106). Jeff Gordon (191.774) was fifth, giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the top five spots.

The fourth Hendrick driver, Jimmie Johnson, managed only the 16th-best speed (190.640) on the 1.54-mile trioval.

Former Cup regular Casey Mears again failed to qualify for his first race of the season. Also failing to crack the 43-car field were Aric Almirola and Terry Cook.

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