Mark Martin Wins the Pole for the Daytona 500 with Teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Qualifying Second
South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya finished 10th in the Bud Shootout and will determine his Daytona 500 starting spot in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday (photo courtesy: Jason Smith, Getty Images Sport)
Rick Hendrick’s mission was simple, yet complex: Take fan favorite Mark Martin’s No. 5 team and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 and create one team, one group that would combine forces to make two improved units.
Their first effort paid big dividends as Martin won the pole for the Daytona 500 and he and Earnhardt Jr. swept the front row for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Martin, 51, became the oldest driver to win the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race a year after winning five races and finishing second in points when NASCAR crowned its Champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. qualified on the front row for a restrictor-plate race for the first time since 2003.
The Hendrick duo are the first teammates to sweep the front row for the Daytona 500 since 2007, when David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd did it for Yates Racing.
Martin, who has never won the Daytona 500 or a NASCAR Championship after 27 years of trying, qualified at 191.188 mph while Earnhardt Jr.’s speed was 190.913.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman qualified third, followed by Wood Brothers Racing’s Bill Elliott and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Juan Pablo Montoya.
Three drivers who were not guaranteed starting spots earned positions for the season’s first points race with their qualifying speed – Elliott, Red Bull Racing’s Scott Speed and Florida resdient, Joe Nemechek, with his Nemco Motorsports team. Only the top two starting spots are locked in. The remainder of the 43-car field will be set during Thursday’s two 150-mile qualifying races.
Both Martin and Earnhardt Jr., whose teams are housed in the same shop at Hendrick Motorsports, were quick to credit the combined efforts of their teams, particularly the teamwork of crew chief Alan Gustafson (Martin) and Lance McGrew (Earnhardt Jr.).
“I've been around this business a long time and I've never seen anyone pull that whole group of people together better than Alan does,” Martin said.
“I can't tell you how proud I am of Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew,” Hendrick said. “The challenge was we wanted one team with two cars, and 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.”
Hendrick’s objective is to improve Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 team, which went winless and finished 25th in points last year while Martin and teammate Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swept the top three in points.
“It's a testament to what the 5/88 shop can do,” Gustafson said. “I'm really proud of the shop.
“We were hard on them, to say the least, over the winter. Worked a lot of hours. For it to pay off instantly like this, to have the 5 and 88 on the front row is really gratifying for us. I think it will be a big shot in the arm for us for the rest of the year.”
Gustafson, who led Martin to five wins last year, said it was not easy.
“It sounds very simple but it's very complex to get two racers who typically are very egotistical people to get along real well and cooperate in the direction of the shop,” Gustafson said.
“For us, that's the key. When you use 85 people, what we've got to do is get 85 people to produce as much as they possibly can. That's how you're the fastest, that's how you're the best, that's how you win poles, that's how you win races.”
Gustafson said the two teams did not work as closely together last season, and it showed on the track.
“It definitely was not as good as it needed to be. We needed to improve,” he said. “We needed to be more efficient. We needed to play off each other more. We needed to make that shop operate as one. We've done that now. It took a lot of work.”
And at least for one week, it is paying off.
“This is a big deal,” Gustafson said. “It is a big deal to those guys who have worked 24/7 that we went in there and shook up their lives three months ago and said, ‘This is what is happening. Three months ago, you're building this for the 5, now you're building this for the 5/88.’
“This is a big shot in the arm for those guys.”
All three of NASCAR’s premier racing series—the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series—again will crown Champion during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19-21). For ticket information, stay tuned to THEChampionshipTrack.com or call toll free (866) 409-RACE.