Martin nails down first Daytona 500 pole
Newton: Martin in Danica's Shadow
No matter what Mark Martin did Saturday, he wasn't about to trump Danica Patrick's ARCA debut. But by clocking the fastest pole speed for the 500 since 1999, he tried, writes David Newton. Story
Martin, the only driver to top 191 mph during qualifying, earned his first Daytona 500 pole. Earnhardt will start second, trying to rebound from the worst season in his Sprint Cup career.
The front-row sweep validates, at least for a week, the offseason moves team owner Rick Hendrick made in an attempt to get Earnhardt's team turned around.
"It's such an incredible accomplishment for the 5 and 88 team," Martin said. "It's all about the team. That was not an accomplishment of mine. ... To have Dale Jr. on the outside of the front row, locked in, just means we're doing something right."
Earnhardt was nearly as optimistic.
"This is a start, and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling over the next several days and have a good Speedweeks," Earnhardt said.
Martin and Earnhardt are the only drivers in the 43-man field who have their starting positions locked in.
The top 35 drivers from last season are guaranteed starting spots in next Sunday's race, but their positions will be set in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races. Eight other spots will be up for grabs in those races, which could be wild affairs since NASCAR is giving drivers more horsepower and more leeway for aggressive driving.
Martin and Earnhardt, meanwhile, might just want to stay out of trouble.
Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team in NASCAR right now, spent the offseason trying to get Earnhardt more in line with teammates Jimmie Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon -- who swept the top three spots in the final standings last season.
Earnhardt, the sport's most popular driver, went winless in his No. 88 Chevrolet. He notched just five top-10 finishes, had his crew chief fired midway through the year and suffered through the most confidence-rattling season of his 10-year Cup career.
After celebrating Johnson's fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, Hendrick made getting Earnhardt's team turned around his top priority. He restructured shop practices and shifted a lead race engineer and a key mechanic from Martin's successful team to Earnhardt's struggling crew.
Whether the moves pay off won't really be known for some time, but for at least a week, it looks like Hendrick pushed all the right buttons.
"It takes a little bit of the pressure off and relieves a little bit of the stress," Earnhardt said.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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