DOVER, Del. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s free-agent price tag just might be rising as fast as his qualifying speeds.
With his crew chief suspended and contract negotiations for next season still ongoing, nothing seemingly has served as a distraction of late on the track for the surging Earnhardt.
Earnhardt almost had a pole to celebrate until he was bumped off late Friday by Ryan Newman for the top spot for the race at Dover International Speedway. Newman followed last week's front-row start with his second straight pole and 40th overall with a lap at 152.925 mph.
Earnhardt was second at 152.387 and Bobby Labonte third in 152.304 for Sunday's race on the mile concrete track.
"Second was close and we can have a sense of pride in that accomplishment," Earnhardt said.
Although he was denied his first pole in 164 races, racing these days comes a whole lot easier for Junior than talking about where he might end up after this season. Decision day is looming for the wildly popular NASCAR driver, who says three or four teams are still in serious contention to land the free agent once he ends his run at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Ryan Newman has reason to smile after winning his second straight pole. (Getty Images)
"I can tell you that things are positive," Earnhardt said. "I've just been overwhelmed with the personalities I met."
Earnhardt's 13th in the season standings, only 13 points behind Jamie McMurray for the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. Earnhardt finished eighth in each of the last two races and added what was a season-high fourth-place start last week in the Coca-Cola 600.
And he was just edged out of the pole on Friday, even without crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Eury is sitting out the second race of a six-race suspension after NASCAR discovered illegal brackets on the rear wing of the No. 8 Chevrolet at Darlington Raceway.
Earnhardt was docked 100 points and Eury was $100,000.
Hey, with runs like these, Junior won't have to worry too much about Eury rushing back.
This process of scouting out new teams has been exciting for Earnhardt, still without a pole since a Sept. 29, 2002, race at Kansas, who never had a chance to see up close how some of NASCAR's heavyweight teams operate.
"I didn't see any golden eggs laying around," Earnhardt said.
But he did like some of the areas where the other teams are branching out and growing, thanks to some of the financial resources not necessarily available at DEI. Still, Earnhardt believes he can win again this year -- he's won at Dover before -- and that his departure had little to do with his confidence in his team.
"The reasons I left were truly personal and not competition related," said Earnhardt, referring to his relationship with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.
Earnhardt's sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, had set an end of June deadline to get a new deal done, though she said Friday she'd like to get it wrapped up sooner.
"I'm getting really excited," Junior said. "I think the time Kelley wants something done is going to be OK. I thought it would take a lot longer than that. The horizon's pretty clear on what I feel like I need to do. So we're pretty excited and looking forward to maybe announcing something here in a month or two."
Earnhardt is taking a patient approach, and it seems he'll only drive a Chevrolet, which "spells it out pretty good for a lot of people," as to where he'll end up.
"Just for a couple of extra bucks I wouldn't want to go drive for another manufacturer," he said.
Earnhardt insisted the final decision will come down to what he wants, not someone steering him in a different direction.
"I'll be excited as heck when I can tell everybody what I'm going to do and where I'm going to be," he said.
Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards round out the top five, and points leader Jeff Gordon is sixth.
Michael Waltrip qualified for a race for the first time since the Daytona 500, starting 23rd in his No. 55 Toyota.
"We work so hard and we understand the challenges, and we knew something good would happen eventually," Waltrip said.
Waltrip, the two-time Daytona 500 winner, is having a miserable season on and off the track. He lost crew chief David Hyder after the Daytona cheating scandal, then was later charged with reckless driving and failing to report an accident, both misdemeanors.
"I"m real thankful for all the help and the support we've gotten," he said.
Newman is the last driver to win from the pole at Dover (2003).
"I wouldn't say we're back full force, but a percentage of us is," Newman said. "We need some better results on race day and we're working on that."
The Associated Press News Service
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