HAMPTON, Ga. -- It seems the only person surprised by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s early-season showing is Little E himself.
''Maybe I expected it to be a little tougher on all of us,'' he said Friday after another in a series of strong qualifying efforts.
Dale Jarrett, the defending Winston Cup champion, won the pole for Sunday's Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it was the 25-year-old Earnhardt Jr. who created most of the excitement in the qualifying session -- delayed 90 minutes by rain -- by taking second.
''I thought for a while we might have it,'' said the son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. ''But the outside of the front row isn't too bad. We're a little behind on our race setups, and qualifying I think has helped us finish better than our car actually has shown.''
The youngster, making only his ninth Winston Cup start on Sunday, had a career-best start of third last week in Las Vegas and matched his career-best 10th-place race finish.
Ricky Rudd, who qualified on the front row for each of the first three races, was far off the pace in 34th on Friday. That left Little E, a two-time Busch Series champion, as the only driver who has qualified in the top 10 for every race so far this season.
''We ran here a lot in the Busch Series and did a good job,'' said Earnhardt Jr., who also finished 14th in the Winston Cup race here last November. ''Running last year helped, and I feel pretty confident at this track.''
Jarrett's fast lap of 192.574 mph was good enough to beat Earnhardt's 192.333 and gave him his second pole of the season. It also put a Robert Yates Racing Ford on the pole for the third time in four races.
Jarrett, who has nine career poles, led qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500 -- which he won -- and new teammate Rudd was out front for the start in Las Vegas.
''We didn't have a very good car when we got here, but we kept improving on it and that build my confidence up,'' Jarrett said.
Asked to explain how he already has two poles this season after failing to win any during his championship year, Jarrett said, ''Good race cars and good engines. We came close a couple of times last year.''
Steve Park, Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., was third at 192.220, followed by Matt Kenseth, another rookie, at 192.140, and Kevin Lepage at 192.080.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jerry Nadeau and Jeff Gordon, the defending race champion, were next at 192.060 and 191.947, respectively. Rounding out the top 10 were Joe Nemechek at 191.661, rookie Dave Blaney at 191.417 and Bill Elliott at 191.311.
A lot of attention was on the Chevrolets on Friday, the first time for them on track since NASCAR notified them of a modification allowing up to 2 more inches for the front air dams on the new Monte Carlos.
Ford and Chevy shared both the front and second rows, with a total of five Monte Carlos, four Fords and one Pontiac in the top 10.
''Right now, we're about where we need to be,'' Earnhardt Jr. said of the aerodynamic change. ''Our cars are turning down in the corners a lot better. We're actually on occasion too loose, and that hasn't been the case before this.''
Gordon, a three-time Atlanta winner and three-time series champion, said, ''The additional 2 inches should help with front-end downforce. The new Monte Carlo has the same downforce as the old Monte Carlo, but the rear downforce is greater and you have to have balance.
''I don't think it's as much as we needed, but we'll take what we can get.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.