DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Martin Truex Jr. suffered through an uncertain winter, unsure if his revamped race team could take him to the top.
Mark Martin also endured a long offseason, anxious to join NASCAR's premier program.
Their waits proved worth it Sunday when the former teammates took the top two starting spots for the season-opening Daytona 500.
Truex, now driving for the organization born from the merger between sponsor-strapped Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing, earned the pole for the Feb. 15 showcase event. With a lap of 188.001 mph in a Chevrolet, he showed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will go on perhaps stronger than the individual teams ever were.
"It was a tough winter for most of us in the community," said Ganassi, the front man for the new race team. "Bringing two companies together is a difficult task, a painful thing for a lot of people. My hats off to these guys because there was a core group of people who never wavered, never lost focus on what they wanted to do and today was a reward."
The merger resulted in roughly 150 layoffs, coupled with an additional 70 employees Ganassi let go in July when he shuttered one of his three race teams. And it came together with just a week left in the season, giving management only three months to ready for NASCAR's biggest event of the year.
But they were clearly ready for Daytona: Truex had the fastest time, Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth and Aric Almirola was seventh. Truex and Almirola were in old DEI cars, while Montoya will race in a car from the Ganassi inventory.
"It's good to see the hard work pay off. They've been through a lot this winter," said Truex, who earned just the second pole of his career.
"In two months, to move shops, to move everything and start over that's a big deal to the guys. To start working with a lot of new people, for both sides to fit together as well as they have, I think it's going really well."
Martin shared the sentiment after earning his highest-qualifying position in his 25th Daytona 500 start.
He spent the past two years driving a limited schedule for DEI, but was lured back into another run at the championship when Hendrick Motorsports offered him a seat in its elite equipment. It's re-energized the 50-year-old veteran, considered the greatest driver to never win a Cup championship.
"It's an amazing feeling," Martin said. "I feel so grateful to Rick Hendrick, because that's where it all starts. What an incredible person he is for giving me this opportunity. I just can't wait to drive it. I wish we were starting (the race) in five minutes. Just give me enough time to get strapped in, and I'd like to start the 500."
Martin, who turned a lap in his Chevrolet at 187.817 mph, has never won the 500. He came oh-so-close in 2007 when he was nipped in a photo finish at the line by Kevin Harvick.
Only the top two spots were secured under the complicated qualifying process for the marquee race, and the rest of the field will be set by a pair of 150-mile races Thursday.
But the top 35 drivers from last season are ensured a spot in the 500 field. Four other drivers were technically locked into the field, although their starting spots will not be determined until after Thursday's qualifying races. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott, two-time series champion Tony Stewart and Travis Kvapil earned their way in by posting the fastest speeds among drivers not already assured a spot in the field.
Terry Labonte earned a berth in the field as the fastest former champion attempting to make the field.
Many believed Elliott had a solid shot at the pole after pacing both of Saturday's practice sessions in the storied No. 21 Ford for Wood Brother Racing. Like many smaller teams, the Wood Brothers have been saddled with sponsorship woes. Despite being one of the oldest teams in NASCAR history, the team currently has only enough funding for 12 races this season.
"I have such mixed emotions," said Elliott, who was fifth fastest in qualifying. "This whole (sponsor) Motorcraft team, they really put a good plan together to come down here for the 500 this year and I'm so proud of what they've done. I'm disappointed for those guys that we didn't sit on the pole."
Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years to take over his own team, posted the 10th-fastest speed then waited in uniform with his new crew to see if it was good enough to lock down a starting spot.
Ryan Newman, his teammate, posted the third-fastest speed of the session but was already locked into the field based on last season's points.
"To have a new organization and a new group of guys do this ... this is a good effort for sure," Newman said.