Three weeks ago, at a Fan Fest appearance at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke of a renewed spirit of cooperation at the Hendrick Motorsports shop shared by the #5 and #88 teams.
What Earnhardt termed a "change in culture" spurred by personnel moves within the shop was in full flower Saturday at Daytona.
Mark Martin, who led NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series with seven poles last year, added another his resume, putting his #5 Chevy in the top starting spot for the Feb. 14 season-opening Daytona 500. Navigating the 2.5-mile superspeedway in 47.074 seconds (191.188 mph), Martin edged Earnhardt (190.913 mph) for the pole.
Those two drivers, who will start first and second in the 52nd running of NASCAR's most prestigious race, are the only two who know their positions on the grid for the Valentine's Day event. The starting order for the rest of the 43-car field won't be determined until Thursday, with the running of the two Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races.
Team owner Rick Hendrick lavished praise on crew chiefs Alan Gustafson (Martin) and Lance McGrew (Earnhardt).
"The challenge was to run one team with two cars, and then to have those two cars down here that ran almost identical times," Hendrick said. "I know this is just one race, but no one here, and no one outside our company will know the effort Alan and Lance put into this team and these two cars, and I'm really proud of them."
Martin, who won his first Daytona 500 pole and the 49th of his career, tying Bobby Isaac for eighth all-time, echoed those sentiments.
"This is such a great accomplishment for the 5 and 88 teams," Martin said. "That was not an accomplishment of mine. It is one of all our guys on this team. To have Dale Jr. on the outside of the front row, locked in, just means that we are doing stuff right."
Ryan Newman (190.577 mph) was third quickest in Saturday's time trials, followed by Wood Brothers Ford driver Bill Elliott (190.573 mph), the fastest of the 19 drivers required to make the field on speed. Elliott, Scott Speed (13th) and Joe Nemechek (16th) - the three quickest in the go-or-go-home group - all know they'll start the race, but won't know their starting positions until the Duels are run.
The other 16 drivers whose cars are not locked into the field by virtue of top-35 owner points finishes in 2009 must try to race their way into the 500 on Thursday. Bobby Labonte, however, is guaranteed a place in the field as the most recent past Cup champion not already exempt, regardless of his finish in the Duels.