AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Mark Martin switched teams in the offseason to join Michael Waltrip Racing, the latest move in his multi-stop career.
Wherever he’s gone, the veteran driver has won, and it doesn’t look as if it’ll take long to do it again with his new team.
Martin followed up a solid run at the Daytona 500, nabbing his 52nd career pole on one of the last qualifying runs Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.
“You look at Mark Martin, it doesn’t matter whose car he drives, he’s good in it,” said defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who will start on the front row next to Martin for Sunday’s 312-mile race. “To me, it’s cool to see stuff like this where you’ve got a guy like Mark that has bounced around to different organizations and he’s been fast and won races at everywhere he’s been.”
Regan Smith appeared to be in line for his first career pole, sitting atop the grid with just a handful of qualifiers left.
Two of those drivers were Martin and Stewart, who know a little about racing around Phoenix’s mile oval — or anywhere else.
Martin was the first to pass Smith, turning a lap of 26.313 seconds with a top speed of 136.815 mph. Stewart also bettered Smith with the last qualifying run of the day, finishing .13 seconds behind.
Smith watched it unfold quickly, seeing himself go from first to third in a matter of minutes as the TV cameras followed his reaction.
“Yeah, you get nervous,” said Smith, who wrecked in both Phoenix races last season. “You want to get it. Poles mean something, they’re stats. Nobody is going to remember we qualified third … but we’re happy to be starting up front.”
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, off to a disastrous start to the season, will start on the second row with Smith after qualifying fourth. Juan Pablo Montoya qualified fifth, five days after a bizarre crash into a safety truck at the Daytona 500.
Martin has raced for seemingly every team on the circuit while winning 40 career races. He spent the past three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but changed teams in the offseason, joining Michael Waltrip for a partial season.
Martin, who will run 24 of 36 races this season while sharing seat time with Waltrip, struggled in qualifying at the Daytona 500 and started 22nd. He was good once the race finally got going after nearly two days of weather delays, leading two laps before finishing 10th at NASCAR’s biggest race.
Martin followed that up by grabbing the pole at PIR, where he’s won twice — last in 2009 — and has 28 top-10 finishes.
Not bad for a grizzled 53-year-old whose first Sprint Cup race was in 1981.
“I think all of you know that I do work real hard at it, and I know that I have to work harder at it than guys that are 20 years younger than me,” Martin said. “I’m willing to do that to be able to compete.”
Stewart made a change of his own during the offseason.
Smoke won his third Sprint Cup title in 2011 by edging Carl Edwards in the final race, then fired crew chief Darian Grubb a week later. He later hired Steve Addington away from Penske Racing to serve as his new crew chief.
Stewart and Addington had a good first run together, qualifying third for the Daytona 500. Once the race started, things didn’t go so well; Stewart led two laps early, but wasn’t really a factor, finishing 16th to extend his winless streak at the Daytona 500 to 14 years.
“It’s what I would truly consider our first real weekend with Steve Addington as crew chief,” Stewart said. “Daytona is always kind of a different deal, but this is where you first really get to start working on the handling of your car with your crew chief. I’m really proud of what we did yesterday and today.”
Johnson needed a good run at Phoenix.
He had his run of five straight Sprint Cup titles last season with his worst season in NASCAR, winning just one race and finishing sixth in the Sprint Cup standings.
Hoping for a bounce-back season, Johnson instead had his car fail inspection on the opening day of Speedweeks at Daytona, then was knocked out of the race on the second lap when he was bumped by Elliott Sadler.
Johnson’s start got even worse on Wednesday, when NASCAR announced crew chief Chad Knaus was fined $100,000 and, along with car chief Ron Malec, was suspended six races. Both were allowed to work at Phoenix after Hendrick Motorsports appealed the ruling.
Johnson also was docked 25 points, leaving him 70 behind Kenseth in the season standings. Johnson has been good at Phoenix, though, winning four races in 17 career starts, so starting near the front was good news for what he hopes will be a big rally from a tough start.
I’m very proud of the lap,” Johnson said. “The car has been great all weekend, and I look forward to tomorrow’s race.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)