Auto racing: Martin, Earnhardt Jr. up front for Daytona 500
AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent the last month talking about how those in-house, offseason moves would make a difference.
Today, they may have convinced everyone else.
Martin and Earnhardt posted the top qualifying runs and secured the front row for next week's Daytona 500. It might not mean as much as Hendrick Motorsports' 1-2-3 finish in last season's Sprint Cup standings, but the latest sweep provided some validation to those changes made in hopes of bolstering both teams and getting crew chiefs Alan Gustafson (Martin) and Lance McGrew (Earnhardt) on the same page.
"The challenge was we wanted one team with two cars," Hendrick said. "Then they unloaded two cars that ran almost identical times. I know this is just one race, but no one here and no one outside of our company will know the effort that Alan and Lance put into this team and these two cars, and I'm really proud of 'em."
Martin, the only driver to top 191 mph, earned his first Daytona 500 pole. At 51, he also became the oldest driver to earn the top spot for NASCAR's premier race.
"I love getting records," Martin said.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, will start second in his attempt to rebound from the worst season in his Sprint Cup career.
"This is just a small step in the right direction for the 88," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully we can be a part of what the other three teams have had success-wise in the past season this coming year."
But Earnhardt also stopped short of making too much out of one qualifying run at his best track.
"You know, all this really does today is pleases a ton of people back in Charlotte, gets all these guys on our teams that are traveling out here with us pumped up about this opportunity coming up," he said. "It takes a little bit of pressure off, relieves a little bit of stress to be able to go out there and be able to do something good."
Martin and Earnhardt are the only drivers in the 43-man field who have their starting positions locked in. The top 35 drivers from 2009 are guaranteed starting spots in next Sunday's race, but their positions won't be set until Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races.
Two-time Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek also locked up spots in the season-opening race, and Bobby Labonte will get in based on a past series champions provisional. That leaves four spots up for grabs in those Thursday races, which could be wild affairs because NASCAR is giving drivers more horsepower and more leeway for aggressive driving.
Martin and Earnhardt might want to stay out of trouble.
Or maybe not.
"What do you think I'm going to be trying to do?" Martin said, nothing that his most significant win at Daytona came in the 1999 Budweiser Shootout. "I'm going to be trying to win me a race."
Earnhardt might be more cautious, especially after an offseason filled with aggressive moves.
Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's most successful team right now, spent the last three months trying to get Earnhardt more in line with teammates Jimmie Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon.
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. He was 25th in points.
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.
"You know, it makes me feel good because I know Alan and Lance have really tried to work very, very close together," Hendrick said. "And when you can go to the racetrack and both cars are really similar like that, it reflects on the sharing of information and sharing of knowledge and ideas, especially when it comes to speedways like Daytona. There's plenty of written data, but there's a lot of ideas floating around, too, that can help you that aren't on paper.
"It's really cool when those two guys can sort of mesh as well as they have. I think when they do that, they set a great example for everyone else in the shop to follow suit."