Anyone who contends that motor racing is a young man's game clearly hasn't met Mark Martin yet.
Even at 53 years of age and after more than three decades and 845 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is still finding new 'firsts' to add to his career haul - such as his first-ever pole position at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400, in his 54th event here.
"I have to drive these things fast, I'm trying to keep a job here!" he quipped as he stepped from the #55 car after his run, adding dryly: "So far it's going well."
Indeed it is: his lap of 36.053s (199.706mph) on the two-mile tri-oval almost two-tenths faster than that of Carl Edwards, who will share the front row with him for Sunday's noon start.
"I am surprised how fast Mark's lap was. Ours was good so Mark really stepped it up, that was a great run for him," said Edwards. "Mark pulled one our there. He was excited when he came in. I got to talk to him and he was wound up."
"I'm designed and geared for one lap qualifying," said Martin. "I didn't almost wreck the first lap, so I tried to go a little harder on the second lap and there was no way. I wobbled into one and there was no way I was going to beat it after that."
As well as the fastest car in qualifying, Martin seemed optimistic that he had the car to beat on Sunday, too. "We posted some pretty fast laps in race trim before we switched to qualifying trim today," he said. "All that bodes well, but you know me — I know how hard these things are to win and I know that not only does the fastest car not always win the race, but it just takes a whole lot.
"I believe this race team is up to the challenge of contending and winning a race somewhere along the way," he continued. "I can't know if it could possibly be this one or not. I just can't say. All I know is we're probably not going to have to take a middle of the pack race car and try to win with it."
One possible reason that Martin seems so energised this week is that he's organised a light schedule for himself over the summer, using his reduced season commitment to allow him to skip over half the races in the last two months - but then crucially, far from being rusty upon his return he's coming back faster than ever.
"I've had a few years of practice," Martin pointed out. "I don't need a whole bunch of practice - I just need a race car like what I drove today."
“So in the last eight races he has only participated in three of them?" marvelled Carl Edwards when this was pointed out to him in the post-qualifying press conference. "He is living the dream! He has had a successful career and is able to pick and choose which races he is going to run and he performs well at them. I think that is pretty amazing, especially at his age. He is an inspiration for me as to how well you can do for such a long period.
"I had Mark Martin toys when I was a little kid and here he is," Edwards added. "There are generations of people who have all had little Mark Martin toys and who knows, my kids someday might be racing against the guy. And they will probably be just as frustrated. How old is he? 53? He can probably bench press more than all of us and go faster than all of us. He is a pretty spectacular guy."
Starting in second place alongside Martin, Edwards will have the best early opportunity to take control of proceedings from the veteran. And he needs to seize the opportunity if he's to have any chance of getting into the Chase shootout for the Sprint Cup championship via a "most wins" wildcard.
"I believe a good starting spot is key here," he said. "I think that it will go long green flag runs and if the speeds are as high as they seem to be – at least for the first part of the race it could be pretty tough to pass, so this could be big for us."
On the second row of the grid, Jimmie Johnson will be lining up alongside Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing team mate Matt Kenseth for the start.
"We were in qualifying trim the whole time," admitted Johnson of his Friday activity at Michigan. "In race trim we have a few more things to sort out, but the car's been quick, it's been great." He'll have the chance to work on his race set-up on Saturday morning, when the Cup cars have two practice session opportunities.
Kenseth said that he had benefited from some shade during his qualifying run, which had given him just that critical edge when it came to grip.
"I did the first lap and thought it was good but I thought maybe I could do a little better the second lap," he said. "The car is really good and we drew a cloud, which was good. Hopefully the sun will come back out - I don't know how fast the rest of these guys will go. That was a good lap though."
Johnson's team mate Kasey Kahne - the driver who replaced Mark Martin in the Hendrick Motorsports #5 at the start of 2012 - will start from fifth place, alongside youngster Trevor Bayne.
"Lap one I was just too loose getting into turn one," said Kahne, who was clearly frustrated at not having done even better in qualifying. "It just slid and I tried to get back to the throttle and it slid some more. I knew I had to make a good lap the second lap because I figured we were able to. Between turns one and two I struggled a little bit, even on the second lap I slid a little more than I would have liked. We ended up fifth."
Bayne on the other hand was feeling pretty good about his own sixth place. The 21-year-old has a limited Cup season with the Wood Brothers team in the #21 car and hasn't had much opportunity to compete of late. With the car not locked in to any race on owner points, the pressure is always on to first and foremost ensure he makes the grid on speed. To do it so emphatically against such high calibre competition is no mean feat.
"For taking two or three weeks off, it is tough to come out here and qualify decent," admitted Bayne. "We were really loose in practice but they got it tightened back up for me so I could get on the gas on exit. That was the biggest thing for me, being able to get wide open and stay in it instead of having to breathe it coming up to the wall. I feel pretty good about that time."
The remainder of the top ten is filled out by Martin Truex Jr. (Martin's MWR team mate) in seventh alongside last week's race winner Marcos Ambrose in eighth, and Landon Cassill joining Paul Menard on row five.
The Cup drivers are sharing track time at Michigan this weekend with the Camping World Truck Series, which is staging its race on Saturday afternoon after the final practice for the Cup race. That means the track will feel quite different by the time that Mark Martin and Carl Edwards lead the field to the green flag.
"We will have to see after the truck race, those guys always put on a heck of a show and they move around and may be will widen things out," said Edwards. At present, "The grooves are pretty narrow ... If they were to drop the green right now everyone would line up and it would be awhile before people could start to pass."
"I think what we'll see is right now the groove is right around the middle and I feel like the groove will move down before it moves up," agreed Truex Jr. "Especially with restarts and guys shooting the bottom like they did here last time ... I feel like it's a little bit wider now than it was earlier just because guys are getting loose and chasing it up going in. That's making it a little bit wider. I feel like in the race the groove will get low before it gets higher.
Meanwhile the Nationwide teams are over the border in Canada for their annual visit to the Circuit Gills Villeneuve F1 Grand Prix venue in Montreal. Local hero Alex Tagliani - on a weekend sabbatical from the IZOD IndyCar Series - claimed pole position for Saturday's race alongside Sam Hornish Jr., who will then fly down to Michigan in time to take over the #22 Penske Racing car for Sunday's Cup race. In the meantime, Parker Kligerman has taken over Michigan practice and qualifying duties for the team in Hornish's absence.
Former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve qualified in third place at the track named after his late father. That puts him alongside Danica Patrick on the grid, which could lead to an interesting start as Villeneuve notoriously punted Patrick out of the race at their last join Nationwide race at Road America in June. Neither driver is known for backing down from a confrontation.
Full qualifying and Friday practice times
Full Nationwide Series qualifying times
from Montreal are also available.