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Associated Press
Auto racing

Earnhardt earns 1st pole of ’12

– It’s a Hendrick Motorsports front row at Richmond International Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for Saturday night’s “regular-season” finale, turning a lap of 127.023 mph in his Chevrolet to bump teammate Jeff Gordon from the top starting spot.

“I was as surprised as anybody,” said Earnhardt, who won the 11th pole of his career. “It feels good. I’ve not really been the best of qualifiers the last couple of years. We have a lot of improvements we’ve made this year. It feels good to get a pole.”

It’s the first pole for Earnhardt since the 2011 Daytona 500. It came at the expense of Gordon, who is trying to race his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Gordon wound up second, and was pleased with the effort.

“Mission accomplished,” he said.

Gordon needs a strong race tonight and a little bit of help to earn one of the two wild-card berths in the 12-driver Chase field. Although eight drivers go into the race mathematically eligible for the final two spots in the Chase field, the talk has focused on a battle between Gordon and Kyle Busch for the last slot.

Busch, a four-time Richmond winner who picked up his only victory this season here in May, qualified 15th.

“In my opinion, it’s really Kyle’s to lose,” Gordon said. “For us, it’s really nothing to lose, everything to gain.”

Regan Smith qualified third and was followed by Chase drivers Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson.

NATIONWIDE: In Richmond, Va., Kevin Harvick took the lead by dodging a caution caused by leader Kurt Busch, then pulled away on a restart with 17 laps to go and won the Nationwide Series race.

The victory snapped a 30-race winless streak in the series for Harvick, whose last victory came in this race two years ago. It was his 38th victory in the series and fifth at Richmond.

As he had done for much of the race, Harvick pulled away as if he had an extra gear when the race went back to green on lap 234, leaving championship contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Busch to battle for second. Stenhouse won that easily.

Busch was third, followed by local favorite Denny Hamlin and Michael Annett.

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