Clint Bowyer took care of one goal Friday with his first Nextel Cup pole. He hopes to accomplish an even bigger one Saturday night.
Bowyer's lap at 164.987 mph earned him the top starting position for the Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway. It also gave him a place in next winter's Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway. His first Nextel Cup victory would put Bowyer in the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge.
"I got in the Bud Shootout, now I've got to get in the All-Star race," Bowyer said. "Maybe this is the weekend I get both of them."
Two-time defending race champion Greg Biffle was second at 164.878 mph, followed by Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards. For McMurray, it's his best starting spot in seven Nextel Cup events at Darlington Raceway.
Kasey Kahne, who had won three of the past four poles at Darlington, was fifth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced his planned departure from Dale Earnhardt Inc. on Thursday, got a big ovation from the fans as he returned to his day job. However, Earnhardt, who hasn't won in more than year, could do no better than 21st at 162.807.
Early speculation has Earnhardt landing at Richard Childress Racing, the same shop his late father drove for. That would make him Bowyer's RCR teammate, something the 28-year-old would welcome.
"He's a good guy," Bowyer said. "I think he's a good team player, a good person for everybody. I don't think there would be a team that wouldn't welcome him with open arms."
The struggles of Toyota's top two racers continued with Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip failing to make the race. It was at this race a year ago that Jarrett and Waltrip sat in Darlington's media center discussing the former Robert Yates Racing driver's plans to move to the Japanese automaker.
Jarrett, who had used up his last past champion provisional earlier this season, also missed last week's race at Richmond -- the first time since 1994 he wasn't in the starting grid.
Jarrett's speed of 161.339 mph was 41st.
Rookie David Reutimann had the fastest Toyota, qualifying 14th.
Reutimann says its hard for the Michael Waltrip Racing team to improve when its cars miss races. "With just me, I don't know how much I'm helping our cause," he said.
Darlington will be the fifth race -- and at 1.366 miles, the longest test so far -- for NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow. Hendrick Motorsports has swept the first four and looks as if its ahead of the curve on the new Nextel Cup machine.
"They're really strong right now and it really doesn't seem to matter if we're at a Car of Tomorrow race or a downforce type track," McMurray said.
Biffle qualified last and watched as competitors glanced off the outside walls. "My confidence kind of sank rapidly as I saw that," he said.
But he also learned the racers could still carry strong speeds despite getting a famed "Darlington stripe."
"You will see a fair amount of cars probably skin that right side a little bit" in Saturday's race, Biffle said. "I think we saw a lot of guys it didn't hurt their speed."
Bowyer's hopeful he can carry Friday's momentum in the Nextel Cup race. He remembers how bad he felt last February watching his fellow drivers compete in the season-starting Bud Shootout. "When you start the year off sitting and watching everybody race, it's no fun," he said.