Earnhardt Jr. puts his stamp on FC 250 pole

STAR Staff

  BRISTOL--Five years after his last Busch Series appearance at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved he still knows the fast way around.
  Driving a blue No. 81 Menard's Home Improvement Chevrolet in Thursday's qualifying, Earnhardt won the pole for tonight's Food City 250 with a speed of 126.870 miles per hour.
  It was his second Busch pole at BMS, the first coming in 1998.
  "I didn't think our car was that good," said Earnhardt, a two-time Busch Series champion. "It was pretty cool to get the pole. There were a lot of drivers here capable of getting the pole.
  "That was all the car had. That wasn't a perfect lap here by no means, but I don't think I ever had run one."
  The fast lap knocked 1994 race champion Kenny Wallace off the top spot, one day after his nephew Steven suffered a mild concussion after slamming the wall head-on in the Hooters Pro Cup event.
  "I ran the fastest lap I ever ran in my life," said Wallace, who ended up third overall. "Last night my nephew Stephen Wallace took the hardest hit he ever has. I really was going for the pole. I said if I wreck I'll end up in Johnson City.
  "It was disappointing to get knocked off (the pole). DEI is so good at picking up speed out of their motors. All in all, it's a good starting place."
  A surprising second place was Tony Raines, the last car to come on the track during qualifying. His fast time knocked Johnson City driver Brad Teague out of the field.
  "We were pretty good in most of the practices, but we never did a full-blown qualifying run," said Raines. "I have a lot of confidence here. I have run good in the past.
  "I feel really good about this race. The crew was like Dale Jr. just barely beat you. When I looked at the scoring monitor and saw he beat us by .004 of a second, I was like get him out of here. In the past two years, Bristol and Richmond have been good tracks for me."
  That confidence for Raines, driving a limited schedule in the No. 74 Outdoor Life Channel Chevrolet, comes from a second place finish here in the spring of 2003.
  "We have good equipment and a good team," said Raines. "Maybe the fact that I have run good before, we have good notes to start from. I've been here two or three times, I think I know what I need here."
  Chevrolets swept the first five starting spots, with two-time race winner Kevin Harvick in the No. 21 Reese's car fourth fastest and David Green winding up fifth.
  A pair of Dodges driven by Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray came in sixth and seventh. The rest of the top ten positions consisted of most recent series winner Kyle Busch in a Chevy, Michigan Nextel Cup winner Greg Biffle in a Ford and Mike McLaughlin in a Ford.
  Current Busch Series points leader Martin Truex, who won here in the spring, rolls off 12th tonight. Other notables include Carl Edwards, winner of the Truck Series race the night before in 14th, defending race champion Michael Waltrip in 18th and defending Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth starting 25th.
  It was a horrible day for local entries. Mike Potter, also from Johnson City, Joe Buford driving the Jarvis Racing car out of Blountville and Caleb Holman from Abingdon all failed to qualify for the race. The only local driver successful in his bid to make the race was 36th place starter Eric McClure, also of Abingdon.
  Still many local fans will be pleased to see a 29 year-old from Kannapolis, N.C. on the pole. The most popular racer in American motorsports starts a Busch race from the number one spot for the ninth time during his career.
  "We had originally planned on running three Busch races like the year before when we brought Menard's on board," said Earnhardt, a 19-time Busch Series race winner. "They asked us to entertain running another race. It was a no-brainer. When you are here at Bristol, there is so much going on. Even if you don't run the race, you feel wore out.
  "It's fun to compete in the Busch Series off and on. I love the series, but I don't want to run in it all the time with the schedule of Winston Cup."