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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins Talladega pole; Dale Earnhardt Jr. ponders ‘what if’

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 - Practice

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 24: Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, talks with Ricky Stenhouse Jr, driver of the #17 Fastenal 50th Anniversary Ford, during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — For a moment, it seemed as if Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement might be delayed.

He sat on the pole in qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway with one car left in the final round.

That was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s hot rod. Stenhouse won the pole for Sunday’s Cup race with a lap of 191.547 mph. It his second career pole. His only other pole came in September 2013 at Atlanta.

Earnhardt, who is retiring from the Cup series after this season, was second Saturday with a lap of 190.780 mph.

Although the rules seem to change most year, eligibility for this year’s Clash at Daytona included pole winners from the previous season. Earnhardt competed in the event as a former winner. If that remains part of the eligibility, he could still compete.

But the notion of being eligible via a pole — his last pole came in 2013 — might be enough to persuade car owner Rick Hendrick into letting him run the event next year. Maybe.

“I got a ‘Get into Clash Free’ card from this year, I’ve got credit,’’ Earnhardt said. “If I get a pole, I’ll talk to Rick and see if we can’t line something up. The Clash isn’t really an official race. It would be fun to talk about it.’’

While Earnhardt looks ahead, Stenhouse’s pole continues the improvement Roush Fenway Racing has made this season. Stenhouse’s teammate, Trevor Bayne, qualified fifth.

“The culture at our shop is just different,’’ Stenhouse said. “The guys want to work there. They want to show up to work and work harder. They’re seeing that working harder is making different results for us, so it’s been a blast for Trevor and myself to drive these race cars each week.’’

Brad Keselowski will start third. Matt Kenseth is fourth and Bayne.

Click here for Cup qualifying results

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