Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Front Row: Are 500 Odds Now Against Them?
Qualifying for the 52nd Daytona 500, which sees the green flag on Valentine's Day, is complete with a front row made up of two drivers that are both sentimental favorites.
They also happen to be teammates.
For the first time since 1989, Hendrick Motorsports swept the top two positions for the Great American Race with 51-year-old Mark Martin winning the pole and Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. the outside pole.
For Earnhardt Jr., it'll be the second time that he's qualified on the outside of the front row, the last being in 2003 where he then finished 36th in the race, but more importantly it starts the year on a better note than the last one ended.
It's well documented how his 2009 progressed and after many offseason changes, including receiving Martin's engineer, the two now start side-by-side in the biggest race of the year.
Team owner Rick Hendrick was more than pleased after revealing, "No one will know the amount of effort and work this 5/88 shop put in over the offseason."
For Martin, it's his first Daytona 500 pole after qualifying second last year, and he's now the oldest pole winner in NASCAR, a record previously held by Dale Jarrett.
He's never won the big race, and when he leads the field to the green flag next weekend, it'll be his 26th attempt.
It's also the first pole at a restrictor plate track for Martin since 1989.
The rest of the Daytona 500 field will be set on Thursday with the two Gatorade Duel races, for now the only starting spots known for certain are Earnhardt Jr.'s and Martin's. Which means that for the next week the talk will be about them and their respective attempts to get back to victory lane.
Plus, there's no better time than now for Earnhardt Jr. to have the confidence to get the job done. "We need a lot [of confidence]. You can never have enough good things happen to you," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won since June of 2008 in Michigan; Martin last saw the checkered flag in September at New Hampshire. They're also now the early favorites to win the big race.
But if history repeats itself, they won't.
Sure, qualifying on the front row for the Daytona 500 is great, it brings a week of attention and optimism heading into the first race of the year. For Martin, whose looking to put his hands on his first Harley J. Earl trophy, he'll have to do so from the pole for the first time in ten years.
Dale Jarrett was the last to accomplish the feat, in 2000, when driving for Robert Yates Racing. In that same race Martin finished fifth, and it also happened to be the Daytona 500 debut of Earnhardt Jr., who was the 13th place finisher.
Another potential, and much wanted, story would be if Earnhardt Jr. was able to win his second Daytona 500, coming from the second position. The last time that a driver won the 500 from that spot was in 1993.
The driver once again was Dale Jarrett.
The highest starting position of a Daytona 500 winner in the last ten years, besides Jarrett, was Earnhardt Jr. in 2004 when he started third. Five out of the rest of the winners have come from outside the top ten, the lowest being Matt Kenseth from 39th in a rain shortened race last year.
Kevin Harvick won from 34th in 2007.
If they can escape the statistics, the good news though for the Hendrick duo is that they both have Hendrick horsepower and chassis underneath them for the Daytona 500 and beyond.
"It's sweet to be driving that thing," Martin says. "This is something that I've stood and watched for 26 years or so with envy of the guys that stood on the front row. Last year was my first experience to do that with Alan and the five car and we were really close last year and the guys just stepped up their game so more for this year."
Like Rick Hendrick mentioned, there were tons of rearranging done in the 5/88 shop after 2009 when Earnhardt Jr. was the lowest finishing HMS car. Crew chiefs for both teams revamped the shop to make the two crews closer and act as one, much like the 24/48 shop of teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
So far the teamwork has paid off.
"Obviously, we're all thrilled to have Dale Jr. on the outside," Martin said in his press conference. "The 5 and the 88 shop, it's a real special accomplishment."
Earnhardt Jr. was also thrilled, especially after having a car that's been fast since it unloaded off the truck. Now with his starting spot settled he along with Martin can focus solely on making their machines faster and driving better for next Sunday.
"We felt real good about our car yesterday [during practice] and we would have liked to have a couple more runs to get a little more speed out of it," he said. "I felt like it had a little more opportunity, and we were able to put down a pretty good lap and I knew that Mark was going to be really strong and his team did a great job making the adjustments from yesterday.
"I'm real proud to be on the front row with my teammate and Hendrick cars. It's a testament to the engine shop and the fabricators, those guys really make the biggest difference at Daytona. We obviously got great individuals piecing the cars themselves together and making sure they're gonna do all the things they need to do in qualifying."
With the season now officially underway and an outside pole in the Daytona 500 already locked up, Earnhardt Jr. is just happy that something good happened for his sponsors.
"Just real proud for our sponsors, AMP Energy and National Guard, they've been real supportive and we've been waiting what seems like a lifetime through the offseason to get to the racetrack to do something good for 'em so this feels really good today."
It's only the first race of the year and already Hendrick Motorsports is back on top and feeling good.
It might be a long year for the rest of the competition.
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