If Mark Martin is to lock himself into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he's in the best position to do so - with the rest of the field in his rear-view mirror.

With a lap at 126.808 mph (21.292 seconds), Martin claimed his sixth - and probably most important - pole of the season Friday at Richmond International Raceway. Currently tenth in the Cup standings, with a 69-point lead over 13th-place Brian Vickers, Martin will lead the field to the green flag in Saturday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

Martin edged Martin Truex Jr. (126.731 mph) for the top spot. Virginian Denny Hamlin (126.630 mph) qualified third, followed by Jimmie Johnson (126.541 mph) and Kasey Kahne (126.452 mph). Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch (14th in points and 37 behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth), Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards will start from the sixth through tenth spots, respectively.

"This is awesome," said Martin, who earned a head start on securing one of the 12 Chase positions. "The car's great in race trim, too. We had a pretty good car in Atlanta (last week), and I went out and qualified, and I felt a lot of pressure to not mess up. So when qualifying was over, I felt I had been a tad conservative.

"Tonight, when I went out to qualify, I had the confidence in the car from practice, and I knew what was riding on it, and I felt like it was worth the risk to go out there and try to get it all. I'll rest easy until tomorrow night. It was a little better than I expected."

While "bubble" drivers Martin, Kahne, Vickers, Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya (14th) positioned themselves advantageously with respect to the Chase, Greg Biffle (11th in points, 68 ahead of Vickers) and Kenseth (12th and 20 points to the good) have work to do. The Roush Fenway team-mates qualified 24th and 28th, respectively.

"We're going to be in the back, so it's going to take us a while," Biffle said after his qualifying run. "We were just way too tight, and I don't know why, because it was a little bit loose in practice qualifying. Normally, it's loose here, or it tends to loosen up, but it was just too tight."

Tony Raines meanwhile was the only driver failing to qualify for the race. Series leader Tony Stewart will start 29th.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News


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