KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Already changed into jeans and a golf shirt, Mark Martin propped his feet up on the chair in front and listened as one of NASCAR's most popular drivers gushed about his improbable season.
Martin seemed to grow more uncomfortable the more Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked, finally breaking into a tight grimace when his former rival's son said he was pulling for the 50-year-old to win the Chase.
He should be used to it by now.
Martin's sentimental run toward the Sprint Cup took another turn on Friday, when the age-defying driver turned a lap of 175.758 mph at Kansas Speedway to earn his career-best seventh pole of the season.
"He still has the urge and the yearning to do it as if he were in his first season," Earnhardt said. "You see guys, their temperament seems to soften over time, but he seems just as excited about going around a race track as he did when he first strapped into a car."
Once a rival to Dale Earnhardt Sr., Martin has never won a season championship, finishing second four times. He's experienced a racing renaissance this year, winning five races, finishing in the top 10 another 11 times to bolt to the top of the Sprint Cup standings.
Martin is 10 points ahead of three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson heading into Sunday's Price Chopper 400, the third of 10 races in the Chase for the championship. He'll start on the front row with Earnhardt after maneuvering through blustery winds at Kansas Speedway's 1.5-mile oval to break his record of poles set in 1989.
"Have any of you ever stepped on a cat's tail?" Martin said. "I have accidentally stepped on cat's tail before. They make a noise and go really fast. When I stepped on the gas of that No. 5 car today, it was like stepping on a cat's tail it had so much horsepower."
He wasn't the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to feel that way. The powerhouse team had the first three qualifiers -- Martin, Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski -- and had five drivers in the top 11. Jeff Gordon qualified ninth and Johnson, the defending champion at Kansas, was 11th.
For Earnhardt, it was a long time coming.
The popular driver has struggled this season after switching crew chiefs, failing to win a race and finishing in the top 10 just three times. Using a car that the team christened at Indianapolis in July, Earnhardt earned his best start of the season after being edged out by Martin's late qualifying run.
"We needed that type of performance and have needed it for a long time," Earnhardt said. "It's got the guys all excited and we'll see how it goes in tomorrow's practice."
Keselowski had his best finish a week after being embroiled in a controversy with Chase driver Denny Hamlin during a Nationwide race last week.
Keselowski spun Hamlin at the Dover, Del., race and the two exchanged words and shoves during a post-race melee.
The animosity didn't change in Kansas.
The two traded barbs through Twitter and the media, with Hamlin saying Friday that he never received a call of apology from Keselowski and warned the second-year driver that he should watch out on the track.
"I didn't know I was supposed to call him, I thought he was going to call me," Keselowski said. "It got crossed, huh? I guess it should get uncrossed. This is what makes racing awesome, otherwise it's just cars going in circles. You've got to have some human drama."
Martin has been creating some drama of his own -- and the other drivers want a piece.
Sitting next to his older teammate after the qualifying session, Keselowski rubbed Martin's jacket.
"I'm hoping some of that magic will rub off," Keselowski said.
"There's some magic dust falling," Martin said, "that's for sure."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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