HAMPTON, Ga., Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping a strong finish to the season can give him a legitimate shot at making a run for the NASCAR Winston Cup championship next year.
He got a head start Friday, winning the pole for Sunday's NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He claimed his second pole of the season by running a fast lap of 192.047 miles per hour around the 1.54-mile oval.
"I feel like right now, running and driving and finishing and doing things like we are, we should be able to maintain ourselves in the top five in points at this level of performance we have," Earnhardt said.
"Throughout my entire racing career, which is only seven years, I've always been a slow starter at the beginning of the season. You can't win championships that way. I've lost track championships like that.
"The first five or six races next year will be a telltale sign if we are able to be there or not. If we can come out and not miss a stride and go to Daytona and Rockingham, then maybe we can maintain that. Those other drivers, like Jeff Gordon, when they win championships, they start out at the top. That's how you have to do it."
Earnhardt said the team made some dramatic changes to the Chevrolet Monte Carlo during Friday morning's practice session. That resulted in a pole-winner as he went out late Friday
and knocked Mark Martin off the pole.
"We weren't really comfortable with the car in practice and made several chassis changes," Earnhardt said. "We tried lots of different combinations and finally even at the end of practice, I wasn't totally confident. I didn't know we could beat Mark's team after what I saw he ran. We ran the car and tried to run the same marks I ran in practice."
Martin will start second after running a lap at 190.463 mph in a Ford Taurus. Normally in competition for a Winston Cup title at this stage of the season, wallace is 12th in the standings and looking for his first victory of the season.
"Another win is always important, whether it's been seven years like Bill Elliott or just a few races," Martin said. "That is what we all work for; that's what we all do. We sat and watched Ricky Craven get his first win and Elliott Sadler. Sometimes you forget when you have had a run with a lot of good fortune just how special being a contender really is. That is what we work for. It's important to everybody to win because these things are hard to win."
Dave Blaney qualified his Dodge Intrepid third at 189.896 mph. He, too, is looking for his first victory. Blaney's teammate, Ward Burton, was fourth in a Dodge at 189.792 mph, followed by Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet.
Jeff Gordon can clinch his fourth Winston Cup title by finishing 32nd or better Sunday. He qualified 24th in a Chevrolet.
Ricky Rudd, who enters the race 305 points behind Gordon with two races remaining, will start 37th after taking a provisional starting position.