NASCAR: Martin to start up front
Associated PressAVONDALE, Ariz. — Mark Martin may be getting better with age.
Coming off a third-place finish at the Daytona 500, Martin became the second-oldest driver to win a Sprint Cup pole on Friday by earning the top spot at Phoenix International Raceway for the second straight year.
“A lot of people describe Mark by saying ‘Mark’s on it,’” Martin’s crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Well, for 2013, Mark’s on it squared.”
Martin went around PIR’s mile oval with a speed of 138.074 mph for his 56th career pole, passing Bill Elliott for seventh all-time.
Martin turned 54 in January, leaving him just a few months behind Harry Gant, who was 54 years and 7 months when he won his last pole at Bristol in 1994.
Martin will be joined on the front row by Kasey Kahne for Sunday’s 312-mile race, with Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch in the second row.
“I said it last week and had some people make some snide remarks about it, but at this stage of the game it’s pretty amazing I get to drive something like this,” Martin said.
Martin started on the pole at PIR last year before finishing ninth and won from the pole in 2009. He had a solid opening to the 2013 season, starting 14th at Daytona last Sunday and working his way to the front to make a big move on the final lap to finish behind Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin followed it up with his third pole at Phoenix to put himself in position to win for the first time since Loudon in 2009.
Not bad for a driver who’s got a part-time gig with Michael Waltrip Racing this season.
“I deeply admire him and his passion for the sport,” said Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup series champion and Martin’s former teammate. “He’s tried to walk away a few times — I think we had a farewell tour for him once — and he came back. He couldn’t do it. He just loves driving his car and is an inspiration for any team he works for.”
Johnson had a whirlwind tour after winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, hitting eight states and David Letterman’s guest chair — along with announcing a new deal with primary sponsor Lowe’s — in the four days before arriving at PIR.
“Five-Time” didn’t have a chance to debrief with his team and arrived in the desert exhausted. He won’t get much of a break here, either, with Sprint Cup practice and qualifying on Friday, his second career Nationwide Series race on Saturday and Sunday’s race.
Johnson cut it close on qualifying, too, walking back from pit road to the garage to his car, which had to go through part of the pre-qualifying inspection before being allowed out. It arrived on pit road three cars before Johnson’s turn and had a strong second lap to earn a spot on the second row.
“I was fortunate to get in the car early and buckled in, kind of catch my breath, but my crew guys were winded by the time we got down there,” said Johnson, whose chance for a sixth Sprint Cup title derailed with a blown tire during the fall Chase race in Phoenix last year. “But a great lap. I’m very excited about how things have started off this season.”
Kahne had a disappointing Daytona 500, collected in the race’s first wreck on his way to finishing 36th after starting sixth. He’s had some success at Phoenix, though, winning the fall race in 2011 and put together a good qualifying run early in the session.
“It was a pretty good lap for right now and hopefully it will stay somewhere in the top 10,” Kahn said. “I would imagine we’ll get quicker as we go, but you never know.”
Danica Patrick struggled with her car in practice and didn’t get it fixed for qualifying, bobbling around turns 3 and 4. She will start 40th after becoming the first woman win the pole and lead green-flag laps in a Sprint Cup race last week at the Daytona 500.
“It’s just not a good qualifying effort. It’s not what I was looking for,” she said.
“I know how important it is on these short tracks to qualify well.”