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Mark Martin wins the Phoenix pole, and it's looking like another Rick Hendrick weekend

Mark Martin! He's having the time of his life....and don't even ask about 2010 yet (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   After Mark Martin took the pole Friday afternoon for Saturday night's Phoenix Subway 500K, he was quick to pin the label of race favorite on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson.
    "When I beat Jimmie to win one of these races I'll feel like I've beaten Superman," Martin said after his run at 133.814 mph around the flat one-mile.
    Johnson is going for his fourth straight win at Phoenix International Raceway, and the man he may have to be could be teammate Jeff Gordon, Texas winner the last time out.
   But probably not Kyle Busch, who has seemed slightly off his game lately.
   Of course the key here may not be the man with the hottest iron but the guy with the best work – or luck – on pit road. Typically this season the man who wins the race off pit road can dominate the stretch of action till the next stop.
   How to put more passing into these events, Busch had a quick suggestion for NASCAR executives: "Open up the rule book a little bit. Let the guys work on their cars."
    And maybe let teams start testing again too.
    Gordon says the Texas win "was huge….in so many ways.
    "I was trying to explain to Steve (Letarte, his crew chief) and the whole team just how big that win was -- It was a track we had never won at before….and we had gone a long while (about a year and a half) without a win.
   "It's just couldn't have been a bigger win for us.
     "I'm still in disbelief that we won it, to tell you the truth.
    "I really was starting to think that we would never win a race at Texas. It just seemed like when the opportunities came our way there, we had never been able to seize on the moment.
    "But the cars are driving this season so much better…the pit stops are great…the communication …everything is just working really, really well right now.
     "I think the win at Texas proved just how good everything is working for us right now."
    And that, Gordon adds, means a lot when looking ahead to the championship chase, even though that doesn't start till September.
    "To me, everything has changed since the chase format has come along," Gordon says. "I love it…but how you go about streaks, and momentum, and consistency, it is all so much different in how I approach it.
    "It's important to win races, to show yourself and everybody that you're capable of winning races. So that was huge for us.
    "But what you're really trying to do is build momentum up to those final 10 races (the chase). And then over those final 10 races, you've got to nail it at those tracks.
     "That's also what was so significant about winning at Texas – that's one of the tracks in the chase."
    And here at Phoenix? It's also in the chase.
    "I've never felt this was my best track…but we've been good here, I have been able to win here," Gordon says. "But trying to get the right set-up, trying to run the right pace, and getting your (corner) entrance speed down is very tricky here.
    "This is a tough one-mile race track, especially with a big, heavy stock car.
    "And the competition is so much stronger this year.  If you look at practice times, they're closer than I've ever seen them for the first 30 or 35 cars.  That means it's harder to pass…and that means track position is more important.
    "It seems to me track position is more important than it's ever been. At Texas it was all about getting out front with that last pit stop, when you have 25 or 30 laps to go. 
    "It's going to be hard to beat anybody at any track these days if somebody gets out front in those final laps."

So is Jimmie Johnson (here with wife Chandra) really this confident about Saturday's Phoenix 500? Nope, just doing some PR work at Sonoma for the June tour stop (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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