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Martin-Earnhardt 1-2 in Daytona 500 qualifying

  Danica Patrick's 'teammate' does a pretty good job coming back after that Thursday crash, putting Rick Hendrick's car on the Daytona 500 pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Mark Martin just keeps getting younger and younger.
   And that new Mark Martin-Dale Earnhardt Jr. synergy that team owner Rick Hendrick has laid out for crew chiefs Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew certainly seems to be paying off.
    Martin and Earnhardt took the front row Saturday for next weekend's season-opening Daytona 500.
   The relevance between winning the Daytona 500 pole and winning the Daytona 500 itself has been, well, not that much over the last few years.
   But this time that could be different.
   Martin had one of his best seasons ever in 2009, nearly winning the Sprint Cup championship, with five tour wins. Now Martin has his first Daytona pole...and as the oldest Daytona 500 pole winner in history: "I love getting records," Martin said. "When we did that tire test at Atlanta January 12th and 13th, I could tell right off that we were picking right back up where we left off last year. We're going to do our best to keep having fun even when things aren't going well. And it may be hard to match up to 2009; I was surprising myself much of last season."
   On the other hand, teammate Earnhardt suffered through one of his worst seasons ever.

  Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes for a better 2010 than 2009. And he's got a fast car at Daytona....again (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   While his three Hendrick teammates were going 1-2-3 in the title chase, Earnhardt was never really even much of a factor to win on any given Sunday.
   So Hendrick has again vowed to throw everything he's got at making Earnhardt a winner again in NASCAR. "We wanted 'one team' with two cars, and these guys ran almost identical times," Hendrick said. "I told Lance and Alan that I was as proud of them today as if they'd won a championship. We just felt we let Dale down last year; we tried, but we could have have done better, and now we have. I always hated to come to Daytona and have to race against Dale or his daddy. To see Mark as fired up and as committed as he is, we're excited about the season."
   "I'd have liked to got the pole, but at least we have two Hendrick cars on the front row," Earnhardt said. "The engine shop and the guys in the fab shop are the most important part of this. We've been waiting it seems like a lifetime to get back to the race track and do something.
   "This is a start, and hopefully we can have a good SpeedWeeks...and then get to California and Las Vegas and see what we can do there. This is just a small step forward for our team, and hopefully we can keep going on with what our three teammates have been doing."
   The qualifying session was to be followed by Danica Patrick's stock car debut in the Saturday afternoon ARCA 200 and the Sprint Cup Shootout Saturday night.
   Gustafson pointed to the "adversity" of tearing up Martin's Shootout car two days earlier. "Our guys in the shop are painting that car right now; they worked all night fixing it, and it will be back down here Wednesday at our disposal, if we need it," Gustafson said. And he called the two-some front row a tribute to the teamwork Hendrick wants to see. "This is a good precursor for what we can accomplish. This season is shaping up as the best shot we've had yet at winning the championship." Considering Martin and Gustafson finished second in the chase in 2009, that's saying something.
   So how long is the incredible Martin going to keep this up? "Oh, don't go there....I'm just planning to love life every time I strap in this car," Martin said.

   Mark Martin (R) and crew chief Alan Gustafson, working well together, but just as focused on getting teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in the game too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Seven of the 10 fastest qualifiers were in Chevys (five of them Hendrick-powered); Bill Elliott, in the Woods' car, had the quickest Ford (fourth); Kurt Busch (seventh), the fastest Dodge; Kyle Busch (ninth), the fastest Toyota.
    In the Ford camp, things didn't appear to go that well. However handling in the 500 may mean more than sheer speed, Earnhardt pointed out: "After about 15 or 16 laps you'll see the guys sliding around out there. And if you're back in dirty air, back fifth or sixth, it's pretty rough."
   Ford's Greg Biffle didn't seem very pleased after qualifying 37th: "Practice doesn't make the car faster. It is what it is.  
    "Basically when you unload here and you start making laps, that's about the speed of your car. That's as fast as it's going to be, I guess."
   However typically the draft is a great equalizer.
   And Ford teams were using their new FR9 engine for qualifying, planning to switch back to their 2009 engines for the 500 (without penalty). Only Elliott will be running the FR9 in the 500.
   What the engine swap might do is unclear.
    "We've put a lot of emphasis on our car for the race, and I think that's just about what we expected," Ford's David Ragan, 24th, said.  
    Carl Edwards, another Ford teammate, was likewise off the pace: "Our Ford was not as fast as we wanted it to be....but it is cool standing down here with all these fans. You have a bad lap like that and you come down here and they're all pumped up ready to go racing."
    Only the top two 500 spots were locked in Saturday; most of the rest of the starting grid will be set by the finishing order of Thursday's Twin 150s. Of the 54 Cup men here making qualifying runs the top-35 from last year's Sprint Cup standings are locked into the 500 field, with only their pit selection up for grabs. That means 19 men are go-or-go-homers. Of those, Elliott, Joe Nemechek and Scott Speed earned 500 spots by their Saturday speed. In fact it appears that only four spots in the 500 will be up for grabs in Thursday's Twin 150s.
     So what does this 500 qualifying session really mean, except for some headlines and bragging rights and good pit selection?
    Good debating point. "It takes a little bit of pressure off," Earnhardt said of his standpoint. "It makes me feel good, because I know Lance and Alan have been trying real hard to work together."
    Still, it always nice to show some speed...and not so good when it looks like you don't.
    Edwards: "We've just got to go race in those qualifiers and try to get the best spot we can, and then go into this Daytona 500 not thinking
about qualifying.  We've just got to go to be the best handling car we can be and be there at the end...and I'd say we've got just as good a
shot of winning it as Matt Kenseth did last year. So that's good enough for me."
   Kenseth won last season's rain-shortened event during a confusion session late in the evening, after dominating Kyle Busch was crashed out in an incident between Earnhardt and Brian Vickers.
                Daytona 500 qualifying results Saturday February 6-2010 (only top two locked in)




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    Mark Martin says he and his team haven't lost a step in the off-season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


                Starting line for the First 150-Mile qualifier Thursday February 11-2010

                Starting line for the Second 150-Mile qualifier Thursday February 11-2010


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