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Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin, former DEI teammates, now both with new teams, share the Daytona 500 front row


The top two qualifiers for the Daytona 500: Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Man, Mark Martin is looking super.
   Yes, he missed the Saturday Shootout (blame that on the rules), but Sunday he was one of the two top dogs at Daytona International Speedway, taking the front row with former DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr. for NASCAR's season opener next Sunday.
   Truex won the pole for the Feb. 15th event, and that's a big plus for his new team and owner Chip Ganassi, who merged with DEI. And that makes a big statement for an operation that arrived here a few days ago with a lot of questions hanging over it. "So far things are happening much better than anyone ever imagined," Ganassi said.
   "Moving to a new shop, and putting two teams together…and they were able to keep their heads down and keep moving forward, so I'm real proud of the guys," Truex said after his lap at 188.001 mph.
   But it's Martin, now 50, who was the real headliner Sunday.
  "Life is the best it's ever been for me," Martin said.
   "It's an amazing feeling….and I feel so grateful to Rick Hendrick, because that's where it starts, for giving me this opportunity.
   "Give me five minutes, just enough to get strapped in, and I'm ready to start the Daytona 500."

  Mark Martin is living the high life (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Truex, with Richard Childress horsepower now, and Martin, with Rick Hendrick horsepower, make it an all-Chevy front row…and hint at a Childress-vs-Hendrick SpeedWeeks.
   Certainly a Chevy week appears brewing – eight of the 10 fastest qualifiers were in Chevrolets. Bill Elliott, fifth in the Wood brothers' car, had the fastest Ford.  
   On the other hand, the other Childress-powered drivers didn't fare so well: Clint Bowyer 22nd, Jeff Burton 31st, Casey Mears 40th, and Shootout winner Kevin Harvick 49th.
   To make that twist even more curious, Truex' own teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola, qualified well, fourth and seventh.
   "It was an interesting winter for most of us in the community," Ganassi said. "Bringing two companies is a difficult task, and it was painful for a lot of people on both sides.
   "So putting three cars in the top-seven is quite a reward for the guys."
   "We had a tough year last season," Felix Sabates, Ganassi's partner, said.
   Teresa Earnhardt, the third partner in the Earnhardt-Ganassi team, was not here.
   "We came down here with a better race car than we've ever had, without even testing," Bono Manion, Truex' crew chief, said. "Testing probably would have hurt us more than helped us."
   Harvick insisted he wasn't concerned: "It definitely wasn't the lap we expected. I don't think we were looking at the pole, but we were definitely much better than that lap showed.
    "The engine never turned the RPMs we expected. The guys told me it looks like we burned up a rear end gear.
   "We've already shown you can come from the back here and win."  
    What can Martin do here? He's never won this race, and his last tour win was in 2005.
   "I'm Mr. Outside Pole. I sat on the outside pole six times last year," Martin said. "But I think I've done 25 Daytona 500s, and never been on the front row. 
   "And it seems like it was only rarely I had a top-10 car for time trials here. My guys would always say 'Don't worry you'll race good.' And I'd tell them 'I'd race better with a faster car.'"
   For years Martin derided restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, as too tension-packed, as too much out of the control of the driver himself.
   But in 2007 he came within the blink of an eye of winning the sport's biggest race.
   "I wasn't mad in 2007 that I didn't win…I was happy that I had the chance," Martin said.
   "This is the crown jewel of stock car racing…and I've had a little success in it…..but everything else in my career would fit around this. this is the best stuff – and the best group of people – I've had.
   "I've done some limited testing with Alan (Gustafson, his new crew chief), but nothing in a car like this at a track like this. So missing Friday and Saturday is like 'spotting' my competition, and I hate that.
   "So this takes a lot of pressure off us Thursday. We can gamble now and go for the win."
   That's when the rest of the Daytona 500 lineup will be set, with a pair of 150-mile races.
   Martin was just 22 when he first hit this tour, back in 1981. And he was a flashy newcomer. But he had to close up shop within two years, when money ran out. "I was on track to be one of the young guns….." he recalled.  "But it didn't happen."
   So Martin had to wait till Jack Roush came calling in 1988 to sign him to run for his then-new team. That was Martin's comeback ride, and he parlayed it into a 19-year career with Roush that made him not only Hall of Fame material but earned him a reputation as one of the sport's good guys.
   "I had to have a break at the end of 2006, after my last race in the 6 car (with Roush)," Martin said. "I was burned out, and I needed a break. I had things to do that racing was interfering with. I had to get out from under it. I wasn't having fun.
   "After I got that…I looked around and figured out that racing is my life and I'm in deep trouble when I can't wheel one of these cars any more. Last year we had at least three good chances to win, and I am sooo hungry.
   "And when I got this opportunity, I had to take it.
   "But you can't control what everybody does (here at this track). So, while I am thrilled to have a fast race car, Sunday I'd rather just be lucky."
   On the Ford side Carl Edwards was a disappointing 26th.
    "I want to be just a little bit faster," Edwards said. "That will put us about the middle of the field for the 150s…and if that race is warm like today, it's going to be wild, considering what happened in the Shootout when everybody had a lot of grip." 
      Doug Yates' three drivers, Travis Kvapil (eighth), Bobby Labonte (11th), and Paul Menard (13th) did well Sunday, but Roush's five mainstays – Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Edwards and David Ragan – were only so-so.
   The fastest Toyota driver was Kyle Busch (15th), and the fastest in a Dodge was Reed Sorenson (28th).



In light of his long-time

In light of his long-time connection with RC and Chevy, why is Kirk Shelmerdine in a Toyota for the 500? Thanks. I haven't been able to find anything on it yet.

i assure you, he'd like

i assure you, he'd like nothing better than to be in a chevy. in fact, the rice burners are for sale....

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