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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.

Joey Logano completes sweep of Xfinity practices at Auto Club Speedway

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Joey Logano was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session at Auto Club Speedway for the Service King 300.

Driving Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford, Logano put up a speed of 176.804 mph on his 19th of 35 laps in the session

The top five as made up of Erik Jones (176.744), Paul Menard (176.587), Brandon Jones (176.475) and Kyle Larson (176.039).

William Byron and Brennan Poole recorded the most laps in the session with 37 each.

Logan also had the best 10-lap average at 174.889 mph.

Click here for the full practice report.