DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR is back — and so is Juniormania.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. reclaimed the Speedweeks spotlight at Daytona International Speedway, earning the pole for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 186.089 mph in Sunday's qualifying.
It's a boost for Earnhardt, who is coming off a couple of disappointing seasons and spent part of the past week facing questions about the 10-year anniversary of his father's death at the track.
Still, Earnhardt was in an upbeat, joking mood after his pole run. And while he understands the hype his presence on the pole and his family ties are bound to stir up this week, he'll mostly try to ignore it.
"I wouldn't embrace that," Earnhardt, 36, said. "I'm here to race. And I understand the situation, and I'm looking forward to seeing how my father is honored and remembered throughout the week, and I'll enjoy that, but I don't really get into the hypothetical, fairy-tale sort of stuff. I just want to focus on my job."
Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon qualified second at 185.966 mph. It's the second straight Daytona 500 front-row sweep for Hendrick, which put Mark Martin on the pole and Earnhardt second last year.
The rest of the 43-car field will be set after Thursday's two qualifying races.
Having NASCAR's most popular driver take the green flag first on Sunday could provide some traction for a sport looking to pick up sagging television ratings and attendance.
An Earnhardt win would be even bigger.
"I think that's just kind of going to build the hype and excitement for next Sunday's race," said Gordon, 39. "I love to bring back a lot of these memories about Dale and what he brought to the sport, his legacy, and it reminds me of a lot of the things I learned from him and the good times that we had. I think it's very cool to pay attention to that and to celebrate it."
But Earnhardt knows qualifying results don't necessarily predict success in the race.
"It obviously gives you a good idea that you've got a great car, but anyone can win the race," Earnhardt said. "There's guys that qualified outside the top 20 that have got winning cars."
Rookie Trevor Bayne (185.445) was third fastest in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. He was elated — and equally impressed by the drivers who beat him.
"If I'm going to get knocked off by somebody, I'm sure the fans were glad it was Dale Jr.," said Bayne, who turns 20 on Saturday. "But to be sitting third behind two of the most well-known drivers in NASCAR — and Jeff Gordon, my childhood hero — I mean, this is incredible."
Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, has fallen on hard times in recent years. He is winless in Sprint Cup since 2008.
But this pole could be an early indication that Hendrick Motorsports' offseason crew shake-up might have the No. 88 team pointed in the right direction.
Though Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship last season, team owner Rick Hendrick reshuffled the deck for the rest of his teams.
Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte, who had been Gordon's crew chief, and Earnhardt's No. 88 team was moved into the same race shop as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
"I really enjoy the way the team approaches their jobs and what their goals are," Earnhardt said. "I sort of like the way they go about business, how they conduct themselves. I'm enjoying everything I'm seeing."
Gordon got crew chief Alan Gustafson, who had been paired with Martin, and Martin teams with crew chief Lance McGrew, who was with Earnhardt.
"The chemistry among the team and just seeing their attitude and everything, it's been awesome," Gordon said.