Daytona 500 Qualifying: Could Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Pole Signal Positive Momentum For 2011?

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was told recently that he looked unhappy, he promised that was hardly the case. He was happy, he said, even if he didn't show it.

But if he got back to the track and started winning again, Earnhardt Jr. said the old Dale – the smiling, jubilant personality who grew a massive fan base – would quickly return.

The pole for the Daytona 500 might just be a pretty good start.

Though Earnhardt Jr. downplayed his accomplishment after Sunday's qualifying session – saying the pole had 0.5 percent to do with him and 99.5 percent to do with the car – he was clearly pleased.

The pace of his speech was quicker, his voice was louder and his posture was taller. It was the brightest version of himself seen at a press conference in recent months.

Could it be that the pole for the Daytona 500 is just what the new Earnhardt Jr./Steve Letarte relationship needs to spark a winning season?

While no one is saying that a restrictor-plate pole is indicative of how a team will run throughout the season, the momentum and positive vibe from the start could help – especially if it translates into a good Daytona 500 finish. 

"Last year, we came out of here with a second place finish," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It does run you right into Phoenix with a good, confident feeling that you got a good start; you want to maintain, improve. So that's kind of your attitude.

"Whereas if you do have a bad finish in this race, you're behind the eight ball, feeling more pressure, got to make big gains."

But what Earnhardt Jr. may get out of his pole the most is learning he can trust Letarte to make the right changes. The team had a ninth-to-12th-place car when it unloaded, but Earnhardt Jr. said Letarte "found a little more speed out of it."

And immediately having faith in a new crew chief certainly can't hurt.

"Professionally, I think it's great because we come into it with a huge amount of mutual respect," Letarte said. "I think that's where it all starts.

"He has a lot of confidence in my ability to crew chief. ... I have all the confidence in the world in his driving ability. I feel there are tracks that I lack confidence we need to go to that he can pick me up, and there are tracks that he thinks he maybe needs to run better and maybe I can help him out."

And then, Letarte said something Junior Nation can only hope is true for their driver: "Change can be for the better if it's done the right way."

Of course, the pole means nothing in the grand scheme of things. And it really has no bearing on the Daytona 500 itself, since the race can be won from any starting position.

But it does allow Earnhardt Jr. to relax and have a bit of fun in Thursday's Gatorade Duel, and set the No. 88 car up to have a solid run in the 500.

"We want to work hard the rest of the week and learn what we can learn about what the car needs to be doing, what I need to be doing, try to get ourselves the best opportunity to win the race on Sunday," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's a long, long race. There's a lot of variables and a ton of work to be done.

"But we feel real confident about our opportunity."

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