HAMPTON, Ga. —Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing his best to forget 2009.
Not a bad way to start.
Earnhardt will be on the pole for the first time in nearly two years today for NASCAR's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, giving the popular, second-generation driver another reason to believe that he's left behind the most dismal season of his career.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," he said.
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Then again, Earnhardt has more in mind than just starting races out front. He wants to be there at the end, too.
"We are starving for a good finish," said Earnhardt, who's gone 60 races since his last Cup win on June 15, 2008, at Michigan. "That is really all we can think about."
Earnhardt's confidence was devastated during a winless 2009. His crew chief was fired midway through the season in hopes of turning things around, but nothing worked. He cracked the top five twice and led a mere 146 laps in 36 races.
It wasn't like he was with a mediocre team, either. Earnhardt's three Hendrick Motorsports teammates — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon — went 1-2-3 in the season standings. Earnhardt didn't make the Chase for the Championship and wound up 25th overall.
"We just got beat down last year," Earnhardt said.
During the offseason, car owner Rick Hendrick called on his considerable resources to turn things around with for No. 88 team. Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was persuaded to let go of two crew members, including his lead race engineer. He also was steered toward a partnership with Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew, the sort of relationship that has made Johnson and Gordon such a dynamic pairing.
"We've seen race teams completely change their identity in offseasons before," Earnhardt said. "I hope that's what we've been able to do."
Earnhardt's redemption season got off to a promising start: a hard-charging second-place finish at Daytona, where he's had some of his greatest successes and was dealt his most devastating loss — the 2001 death of his father in a last-turn crash.
Earnhardt knew a strong run at NASCAR's most famous track wasn't necessarily an indication that he'd be a contender anywhere else, though. It's about doing it week after week.
"We're not the total package," Earnhardt conceded. "We haven't cured everything, obviously."
He was doomed by a broken axle at California, finishing 12 laps behind. He qualified fourth at Las Vegas last week and was in contention for a top-10 finish, though he dropped to 16th.
Now, he's on the pole for the Kobalt Tools 500 — the first time he'll lead the field into a race since April 2008 at Texas.
Earnhardt's blistering lap of 192.761 mph was the fastest pole speed since 2007, before the boxier Car of Tomorrow made its full-time Cup debut. In fact, nearly everyone went faster than the pole-winning speed for the spring race at Atlanta a year ago.
"It's actually crazy how fast it is," said Juan Pablo Montoya, who'll start inside the second row.
The speeds won't be as quick on race day, but Earnhardt showed in the final practice Saturday that his qualifying effort was no fluke. He put up the second-fastest lap (185.517), a thousandth of a second behind Martin on the 1.54-mile tri-oval.
Harvick wins truck race —Kevin Harvick has won his third straight start in the NASCAR truck series, cruising to an easy victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday.
He led 100 of 130 laps and pulled away to a 1.308-second victory over fellow Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch. Harvick, who has seven truck victories in his career, won his final two starts of 2009 and made it to Victory Lane again in his season debut.
Four-time and defending series champion Ron Hornaday, who started from the pole, was running third when a blown tire sent him slamming into the wall between turns three and four, causing severe damage to the rear deck of his truck.