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Dale Earnhardt Jr. tops speed charts in first practice for Sprint Unlimited

Feb 14, 2014, 7:10 PM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr AP

Can you say, “Junior, Junior, Junior!”?

If anyone doubts that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more determined than he’s ever been to not only win his first Sprint Cup championship but also to send Steve Letarte out a winner in his final year as a NASCAR crew chief before moving to an analyst role on NBC Sports in 2015, think again.

The winner of the 2004 Daytona 500 made it very clear Friday in the first practice session for Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited that he intends on going fast and – more importantly – win in 2014.

Earnhardt topped the 18-driver field late Saturday afternoon with a best lap of 198.421 mph on the 20th of 30 laps he turned in practice.

Kyle Busch, who many media members are predicting as perhaps Jimmie Johnson‘s biggest challenge for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, was second-fastest at 198.255 mph, turning his fast lap on the 21st of 30 laps. The younger Busch brother and Earnhardt were the only drivers to complete 30 laps of practice.

In total, six drivers eclipsed the 198 mph mark, with the other four being: Kurt Busch (198.124), Kevin Harvick (198.111), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (198.094) and Matt Kenseth (198.024).

In his first appearance in a race car since his horrific crash in a sprint car last August 5, Tony Stewart did very well, all things considered, turning a best lap of 197.377 mph, good for 10th in the session.

Danica Patrick, who won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500, was right behind her boss and Stewart Haas Racing teammate with the 11th fastest speed at 197.118 mph.

Surprisingly – or could it be a case of sandbagging – Johnson was the slowest with a top lap of just 190.359 mph in 12 total laps.

Check back with NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk again later this evening for results of the second practice session.

Here’s the top lap speeds for all 18 drivers:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 198.421 mph

2. Kyle Busch 198.255

3. Kurt Busch 198.124

4. Kevin Harvick 198.111

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 198.094

6. Matt Kenseth 198.024

7. Ryan Newman 197.954

8. Marcos Ambrose 197.850

9. Denny Hamlin 197.420

10. Tony Stewart 197.377

11. Danica Patrick 197.118

12. Carl Edwards 197.096

13. Joey Logano 196.846

14. Brad Keselowski 196.812

15. Jamie McMurray 196.812

16. Jeff Gordon 196.730

17. Terry Labonte 190.852

18. Jimmie Johnson 190.359

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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