RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In his pursuit of Jeff Gordon and his first career Winston Cup points title, Mark Martin is just trying to stay steady.
So it was fitting Friday when, at a track that has always given him a devil of a time, Martin finished 13th in first-round qualifying for the Exide Select Batteries 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
He'll start six rows behind Bill Elliott, who gained the top spot for the first time since 1995, and Kenny Irwin Jr., making his first Cup start.
Dale Earnhardt, back in the car after his mysterious and unexplained episodes of sleepiness and disorientation in the Southern 500 last Sunday, qualified 22nd with a lap of 123.570. He hasn't won in 50 races.
"I feel good," said Earnhardt, cleared to race after four days of testing showed nothing wrong. "As good as I feel today, last week is hard to explain. You always feel good when you find out how healthy you are."
For Martin, considering his history here, 13th is plenty healthy.
"We certainly didn't choke. We could have let it hang out a little bit more, but we don't like making mistakes right now," Martin said.
"We like to be very sure and very steady."
In his 15 seasons as a Winston Cup driver, Martin has been that, winning 21 races and finishing in the top five in the driver's standings six times. And he's done it all with almost no success on this -mile oval.
In 23 starts, he's got one victory, five top fives and more finishes that start with a 3 or 4 than he usually manages in a 32-race season.
And even when Martin did break through and win here, a penalty assessed after the race wound up costing him the Winston Cup championship.
"That race will always stand out in my mind," Martin said.
It was 1990, and after winning the spring race, Martin's team was penalized 46 points for using an illegal carburetor. Eight months later, Martin came up 26 points short in the championship race to Dale Earnhardt.
"That car went through inspection all weekend and there was never a problem," Martin recalled Friday. "But that's water under the bridge now."
This time around, Martin is 25 points behind Jeff Gordon in the driver's standings, and his focus is on putting the demons of RIR behind him.
Gordon, a nine-time winner already this year, will start 10th.
"We have another chance to win here in the heat of a points race," Martin said. "I like racing at Richmond, but it's always tough on the short tracks because you never know when you could be caught up in something."
Elliott, meanwhile, turned a lap at 124.723 mph to win his 48th career pole and third at Richmond. Last time he started first here, he won.
"This team has done a great job putting me back around," said Elliott, a former Winston Cup champion who hasn't won a race since 1994. "It's really given me new life as far as driving a race car is concerned."
Irwin, the 28-year-old tabbed by Robert Yates to take over Ernie Irvan's No. 28 car next season, said he was surprised to make the front row.
"It wasn't my goal to come here and sit on the pole or break any records," he said. "Just make laps, that's all I want to do."
Irvan, the defending champion, qualified 20th.
"We weren't major qualifiers here last time," he said.
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