- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
All times Eastern
That's what the offseason has been for the Sprint Cup Series. That's what the front row of the Daytona 500 that was set Sunday afternoon symbolized.
Martin Truex Jr. will start on the pole for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, the result of a merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganasssi Racing with Felix Sabates.
Starting beside him will be Mark Martin, his DEI teammate a year ago who moved into the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports.
The front row, the only spots locked in for next Sunday's Great American Race, is like a microcosm of the turnover that has occurred during a tumultuous offseason that has seen organizations disappear and more than 750 employees laid off.
The only thing that could have been better was if Bill Elliott and the legendary Wood Brothers had made it. Elliott was the fastest in both of Saturday's practice sessions but qualified only fifth for a team that will run only 12 races in 2009.
He's still guaranteed a spot in the 500 as the fastest of those not inside the top 35 in owner's points from last season.
But it wasn't the lap he and many were hoping for.
Even Martin was secretly pulling for him.
"It would be real cool," he said, echoing the thoughts of others on a chamber of commerce day at Daytona International Speedway.
Truex and Martin were bubbling like kids over their lap times.
After an offseason that has seen EGR release more than 150 employees, lose Paul Menard and Bobby Labonte to Yates Racing and its president of global operations to run NASCAR's diversity program, it was good for Truex to give those who remained something to smile about.
"It's good to see the hard work pay off finally," Truex said. "They've been through a lot this winter. This is the third year in a row we've had to move shops during the winter. It doesn't sound like a lot, but to move everything and start over, that's a big deal to the guys.
"For them to do that and merge with another team and start working with a lot of new people, for both sides to fit together as well as they have, it's gone very well."
But, Truex reminded, "It's just one lap. I don't want to get too carried away here."
Martin was carried away.
"I can't wait to start running in race trim," he said. "We had to sit and watch all the Bud Shootout practice and watch that race. We're going to make up for some lost time this week when we get into race trim."
That obviously is what it takes to be fast. Chip Ganaasi and Felix Sabates, co-owners of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, were wearing pink shirts as they marched up and down pit road.
"They're beautiful, that's for sure," Truex said with a smile.
Gordon started on the outside of McMurray on the green-white-checkered finish, but he didn't get the push he wanted from eventual winner Kevin Harvick and fell back.
What concerned Gordon was the way McMurray attempted to block Harvick.
"I felt like there was some pretty aggressive driving," Gordon said. "I thought Jamie did a great job. I wasn't displeased. He was just a little too aggressive when it came to blocking."
Mark Martin is as happy as he's been in his life, but he was miserable Saturday night having to watch the Budweiser Shootout for the first time since 1988.
"I was here for the practice," he said after his first qualifying lap for Hendrick Motorsports. "It was really brutal for me to be here and watch and not be a part of it."
NASCAR changed the rules a few weeks ago to get three-time Shootout champion Tony Stewart into the field. Should there have been a Martin Rule as well?
"It was just different," Martin said. "There were more cars than we've seen in the Shootout before. It's an exaggeration, but I felt like I was the only one that wasn't in it. Most of our competition was in it, and with no testing, it was an even bigger advantage.
"I probably would have been in a wreck like everybody else, so the race would have been one thing, but the practice would have been huge."
Chip Ganassi approached Juan Pablo Montoya after a qualifying lap that had him temporarily on the outside pole.
"Did you lift?" Ganassi asked.
Montoya snarled, as he often does.
"To be honest, I actually was disappointed with the lap," he said.
He shouldn't have been. Montoya was 43rd-fastest in Saturday's practice with a best lap of 184.528 mph. His qualifying lap was 187.483 mph.
And, for the record, he didn't lift.
So, Bobby Labonte, how does it feel to have "Peel me" on the back of your Ask.com firesuit?
"It's better than 'Kick me,'" the 2000 Sprint Cup champion said as he walked down pit road.
I'll go ahead and say it before a driver or crew chief does: Sunday qualifying for the Daytona 500 is an absolute waste of time. Give the teams an extra day of practice or the day off entirely and make this one of NASCAR's cost-saving plans.
It's ridiculous to spend four hours to fill the top two spots. The track can't make much money -- if any -- from the few thousand fans who show on a Sunday afternoon, even a sun-splashed one like this. The drivers don't learn much valuable information for Thursday's two qualifying races because the setups will be completely different.
The only team this might benefit is Wood Brothers, which is not guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500 next Sunday. Bill Elliott led both practice runs in the famed No. 21 on Saturday, and he'd love to go into Thursday without the pressure of having to make the field.
Nobody else outside the top 35 realistically has a shot at the pole, so this is useless.
The most exciting thing about last year's qualifying was when movie star Ashley Judd, the wife of Dario Franchitti, violated NASCAR's policy of no dresses on pit road.
Still waiting on a clarification from NASCAR on whether leggings worn under a short skirt are within the rules. No names, but there were at least two potential violations on pit road during Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout.
At least it's warm, with temperatures hovering in the mid-70s. The wool coat I arrived in Daytona wearing four days ago is packed away, although it came in handy for two nights as the heat in the rental house failed with temperatures hovering in the upper 20s.
Settle in. This will be a long day.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
14hK. Lee Davis