The 52-year-old made his professional debut in 1977 and joined the NASCAR ranks four years later. But even in all his years, what he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway amazed even him.
Led by Jeff Gordon whose lap of of 178.248 mph took the pole, Hendrick’s stable of drivers claimed all four of the top spots for today’s Aaron’s 499. It marked only the third time any team has achieved such a feat in Sprint Cup Series history and the first time it’s happened in seven years.
“It’s an incredible engineering feat to be able to put the speed together with every single component — horsepower, aero, chassis, the whole thing,” Martin said. “It’s a huge feat by an organization to be able to pull that off.”
Martin (177.807) came in third behind Jimmie Johnson (177.844) and ahead of fourth-place finisher Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (177.765).
Paul Menard, Landon Cassil, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top 10.
To add to the amazement of the day, it was Gordon’s 70th pole in his illustrious career, giving him the third-most in history. All have come with Hendrick.
“This is as good as we possibly could ask for,” Gordon said. “If we could write the script, we couldn’t have written it any better.
“I had no idea what to expect and neither did the team. But we certainly didn’t expect to go out and qualify 1, 2, 3, 4 like that. I’m not sure where that came from, except for great note-sharing among the teams and hard work.”
The foursome’s fantastic finishes in qualifying could prove to be particularly beneficial on a track where a trusted drafting partner has become all but essential.
Johnson was the last Hendrick driver to qualify, placing a bit of added pressure on the 35-year-old.
Johnson said Gordon and Martin have worked together as has he and Earnhardt. Earnardt told his crew chief Stevie Letarte to send a text message to Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, before Johnson took to the track. According to the Johnson, the message let them know they’d better take care of business and not mess up the Hendrick solidarity.
“…The cars are lined up in the order in which we hoped they’d be,” Johnson said. “It worked out and it’s nice to work with teammates. We’d prefer to work with one another and this at least ensures that first run that we’ll have a chance to work together. And we’ll try to do it more from there if the opportunities present themselves.”
Pete DaPaolo held down the top four spots in 1956 at Charlotte and Jack Roushe did it in 2004 at Auto Club Speedway.
Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was 11th in the qualifying. Michael Waltrip, in a car designed to honor Auburn University’s national championship football team was 12th.
Hendrick team members said they felt confident about all four of their cars, going into qualifying for the Daytona 500 back in February. Earndhardt and Gordon locked up the front row, qualifying first and second but Hendrick was ultimately unable to seal the deal and claim the top four spots.
Saturday they all got it done.
Now, it’s on to today’s race.
Martin acknowledged the historical significance of Saturday’s accomplishment but recognized it’ll take more than a favorable starting position for Hendrick to finish today the way they qualified Saturday.
“I would much rather be lucky tomorrow than good,” Martin said. “But you have to do everything you can to be good. We had a shot to win the Daytona 500 with a wrecked race car (laughs). So, I don’t think you can plan all this out. You have to make your best rest cars. And then hope things go your way.”
Spoken like a true vet.
Nick Birdsong covers sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.