Earnhardt Jr. captures pole for Daytona 500

By Lewis Franck

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. grabbed the pole position for next week's Daytona 500 on Sunday and team mate Jeff Gordon qualified second.

While the race will mark the 10-year anniversary of his father's death at the track, Earnhardt said his focus will be on trying to capture his first win since June 2008.

"I'm here to race. I understand the situation," said Earnhardt. "I'm looking forward to seeing how my father's remembered and honored throughout the week. I'll enjoy that.

"I don't really get into the hypothetical, fairytale sort of stuff."

Earnhardt recorded a lap of 186 miles per hour in single-car qualifying around the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval on Sunday to edge Gordon (185 mph) for the pole in the February 20 Daytona 500.

Both drove Chevrolets entered by Hendrick Motorsports.

"We're fired up," said Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and finished second last year. "The guys working at Hendrick built some awesome cars. We got the front row again, for the second year in a row. We're real proud of it."

Under unique Daytona 500 qualifying rules only the fastest two cars are locked into next week's 43-car field.

Twin 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday will set the rest of the 43-car field for the 53rd running of what is also known as the "Great American Race".

Qualifying speeds were almost 20 mph slower than the 206 mph attained during Saturday's shootout because cars could not take advantage of the two-car tandem, called the draft, where two or more cars running together are faster than a single car running by itself.

The fastest official lap at Daytona was 210.364 mph, set by Bill Elliott during qualifying for the 1987 Daytona 500.

However speeds have not approached that level since Bobby Allison's car flew into a catch fence at Talladega at more than 200 mph later that same year.

NASCAR, which responded by ordering restrictor plates on race car carburetors to keep speeds below the 200 mph mark, rolled out some new rules on Sunday to limits speeds.

Earnhardt's father, NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt, was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He was a seven-time Winston Cup champion and winner of the 1998 Daytona 500.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)