By STEVE REED
CONCORD, N.C. — Greg Biffle won the pole Thursday night for Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first NASCAR Cup race without an Earnhardt in 33 years.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sit out the next two races after sustaining his second concussion this year during a 25-car car pileup Sunday at Talladega. Regan Smith, who’ll drive Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet, qualified 26th.
“It’s incredibly sad anytime you have to have something like this happen, especially with how hard Dale has worked to get into the Chase and become a contender,” said Mark Martin, who’ll start on the front row alongside Biffle.
“I saw his commitment to get there and I feel really bad for him.”
The 53-year-old Martin will make his 850th career start Saturday night.
“There were Earnhardts in the races before I got here and there have been ever since,” Martin said. “It’s a tough one for our sport. On the positive side, he’ll be back in two weeks. And I prefer to look at the positive side. It could be worse.”
Biffle couldn’t have been better.
He set a track record with a lap of 193.708 mph in his No. 16 Ford to earn the pole for the fifth race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
He called the lap “nerve racking” and was cackling as he crossed the line.
He said he had a perfect lap.
“That is the fastest I’ve been around this race track, the fastest anyone has, I guess,” Biffle said. “I couldn’t believe the speeds I was seeing. I knew it was going to be tough to (break the record) and I dug deep. I knew it was going to be hard to beat. These cars won’t go much faster.”
It was Biffle’s 12th pole overall and third this year, but his first ever at Charlotte. He hopes it will give his team momentum heading down the stretch.
“We’ve been down in the dumps because we haven’t started out the Chase very well,” Biffle said.
Biffle is ninth in the Cup points race, 49 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
“It is too late to get back in the hunt? Probably,” Biffle said. “But mathematically it’s possible. Last week we finished sixth and I look at the scoreboard and Brad is seventh. So we gained one point.
“So at that rate it will only take me 49 more weeks to catch him.”
Keselowski qualified 20th.
“Qualifying hasn’t been our strong suit this year,” Keselowski said. “We haven’t been able to get the bounce. But in the races we’ve been fast and I’ll take a good car in a race over qualifying any day.”
Ryan Newman will start third, while Clint Bowyer is fourth and Jimmie Johnson, who traditionally runs well at Charlotte, will start fifth. Martin Truex Jr. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne completed the top 10.
Jeff Gordon, who has finished second or third in six of the last seven races, qualified 13th. He vowed to breakdance in the victory circle if he wins Saturday night.
This weekend’s Sprint Cup race will be the first since Sept. 3, 1979, that will not include an Earnhardt in the field. Earnhardt’s father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt opened the Chase as a strong contender to win his first Sprint Cup title.
However, missing the next two races ends that opportunity, which had become a longshot anyway after the Talladega crash dropped him to 11th in the Chase standings.
It also ends Earnhardt’s streak of 461 consecutive starts, which is the fifth longest active streak in the Sprint Cup Series.
“I would love to race this weekend, and I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete,” Earnhardt said earlier in the day. “But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I’ve had two concussions in the last (six) weeks, and you can’t layer concussions.
“It gets extremely dangerous,” he said.
AJ Allmendinger qualified 38th in his first action since being suspended July 7 for failing a random drug test.
“I’m a little nervous, trying to get back into the flow of things,” Allmendinger said. “I don’t expect to set the world on fire. I’m just trying to get used to it again, progress through the weekend, limit my mistakes, finish all 500 miles and wherever that puts us, it puts us.”
Phoenix Racing asked Allmendinger to drive the No. 51 Chevrolet this weekend as part of the domino effect from Earnhardt Jr. pulling out. Smith had planned to drive the No. 51, but then took over Earnhardt’s ride.