BRISTOL, Tenn. - There were 150 yards remaining in Mark Martin's qualifying lap Friday afternoon, and the driver already was on emotional and mechanical cruise control.
He didn't need to see the checkered flag or the official speed to know he had won the pole position for Sunday's Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
"It's been a long time since I've felt in my heart we had the car that had a chance to win the pole," Martin said after being clocked at 126.303 mph around the .533-mile short track. "I knew when we went into (turn) three and came off four, I had the pole. We were fast off the truck. I knew we had the car to win the pole. All I had to do was go out there and do it. Boy, I didn't leave anything out there."
Martin's Viagra Ford Taurus was fastest in the only practice session leading up to time trials, and he had no problems backing that up in qualifying. It was his seventh career pole position at Bristol, but it's only the second time this year he's qualified among the top 10.
"It feels like it used to feel," Martin said. "There have been talks that there is trouble in paradise at the (No.) 6 car. The only trouble is we haven't been finishing as good as we want to. That's about it. (Car owner) Jack Roush and I have a stronger bond today than we had yesterday, and a stronger bond yesterday than the day before that. It grows stronger every day."
Martin clearly has struggled this year. He's finished in the top 20 only twice in the first five races, and he's mired back in 22nd place in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings. Rumors have been spawned in the garage area lately that Martin was unhappy with his job at Roush. There also was talk that Roush may suspend his engine program and lease engines from an outside source until the team's problems with horsepower and reliability could be resolved.
The driver put an end to all that talk Friday. The effort at one of the toughest race tracks - Bristol has a series-best 36-degree banking - not only answered some mechanical questions, but it also soothed some waning confidences.
"Anyone who has ever been really good has not been so good at times," Martin said. "The fans know that and understand that, but the people that cover the sport sometimes overlook that. They think if you're in a down cycle, you're done for. But the guys who clawed and scraped their way to the top at one time typically figure out a way to claw back up there again, and that's what we're doing. We're working on that, and the pole isn't the end of it. We have a lot more to do.
"My record of late has not been a cause for motivation, but you can believe that's been a big cause for exuberance to get back here."
Martin was nearly 1 mph faster than second-place Sterling Marlin, whose Dodge Intrepid ran a fast lap of 125.387 mph.
"We've been close all year," Marlin said. "I saw Mark run his lap and he had us beat."
Bristol's high-banked layout was described by Kyle Petty as being "like flying a jet inside a gymnasium." That's why the speedway that's only twice the size of a football field has sold 148,000 grandstand tickets for Sunday's race.
"They pack them in here," Marlin said. "And they always see a great show."
With only one round of time trials, three drivers didn't get a second chance to make the starting lineup for Sunday's race (1 p.m., Fox). Rookie Jason Leffler, Marlin's teammate, joined Carl Long and Hut Stricklin as those who failed to qualify.
While Friday's session may have sparked a turnaround for Martin's team, it also signaled a dramatic improvement for Petty Enterprises. All three Petty-owned cars finished in the top 21, meaning all three will get to pit on the frontstretch for the main event.
Petty, John Andretti and University of Georgia graduate Buckshot Jones, who qualified 21st at 124.042 mph, will get one of the coveted spots in front of the main grandstands, while the 22 slowest qualifiers will have to make pit stops on the backstretch.
The way NASCAR conducts pit stops during caution periods creates an advantage for those on the frontstretch, since most of those teams can complete their stops and return to the track while most cars on the backstretch are still driving to their pit stalls.
In 40 previous races at Bristol, only two winners have come from the back pits.
"I finally got with a group of guys that I've got confidence in, and they've got a lot of confidence in me," Petty said. "I didn't know we'd end up seventh, but I knew we had made the race. The way things have been going, that's all that really mattered."
Petty had qualified in three of the first five races, and he needed a provisional exemption to make two of the three races.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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