Truex claims pole for Daytona 500
He had become the captain of a foundering ship when Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate and racing big brother, left Dale Earnhardt Inc. last year, and Truex wasn’t sure he wanted to stay.
Sponsors fled, and in frightening economic conditions, prospects diminished. By the end of last season, DEI took another uncertain step, merging with Ganassi Racing to stay in business and their combined roster of cars shrunk from seven to three.
Yet Truex continued as the embodiment of calm.
“I just looked to the guys on my team,” Truex said. “I looked to the guys in the front office who led DEI. I looked to Chip (Ganassi) when we merged our programs and tried just to be a part of it and give my input and made sure I knew what was going on.
“If you sit back and just listen to what everybody has to say and believe that, you’ll be in a lot worse shape than if you ask the questions.”
So instead of “Whatever happened to Martin Truex?” the better question Sunday was, “How’d they do that?”
Truex won the pole for the 51st Daytona 500 next Sunday, and the Chevrolets of his Earnhardt Ganassi teammates were similarly strong, Juan Pablo Montoya’s fourth-fastest and Aric Almirola’s seventh.
Veteran Mark Martin, in his first race as a regular with Hendrick Motorsports, qualified second. Truex and Martin each will pace one of the qualifying races Thursday.
Although only the front row for the 500 is established in time trials, the session can have a profound impact on a handful of others.
Among those was Travis Kvapil, a three-year Sprint Cup Series veteran from Janesville. His best lap was eighth-fastest and—under a confusing set of procedures—enough to win him a spot in the race.
Those teams that finished among the top 35 in the previous year’s owners’ standings are guaranteed a spot, which left 21 other drivers to fighting for eight positions.
Two spots are available through each of the 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races on Thursday, three more will go to the remaining drivers who were fastest in qualifying and the 43rd position can be used by the most recent past series champion who otherwise would not qualify.
So even if they barely get past the green flag Thursday, Bill Elliott (fifth), Kvapil and new owner/driver Tony Stewart (10th) would have starting spots based on speeds. Terry Labonte would be in as the only remaining champion who would not otherwise qualify.
The finishing order of the Duel races set the specific starting positions for the rest of the 500 field behind Truex and Martin.
Kvapil lost his guaranteed position in mid-January, when Yates Racing entered into partnership with Hall of Fame Racing and shifted Kvapil’s points and crew to the sponsored car of Bobby Labonte.
“I knew we were going to have a pretty good lap, I just really didn’t believe we were going to pick that much up,” said Kvapil, who was almost 20 positions lower on the speed chart in practice. “We figured 2, 2½ tenths (of a second). It turned out to be 4.”
Two other Wisconsinites were already in on points, Paul Menard and Matt Kenseth.
Menard, of Eau Claire, a new teammate of Kvapil’s, qualified 13th-fastest. His speed was comparable to practice, so Menard quickly turned his attention to his qualifying race Thursday.
“We learned a lot last night, car-wise, so we’ll apply that, and I learned a lot as a driver, so I’m looking forward to the 150,” said Menard, who logged 77 laps and finished 12th in the Budweiser Shootout.
Kenseth, the 2003 series champion from Cambridge, was 23rd-fastest.
“If you’re not in the top two it doesn’t really matter, but we work on it as hard as we can,” said Kenseth, who started seven of his nine 500s from outside the top 10. “We want to get the best lap we can for starting spots, but that’s . . . just all we had.”
Despite being fourth-slowest of 56 drivers, Kelly Bires of Mauston, Wis., climbed from his car with a smile. His is a long-shot effort, his first try in Sprint Cup with a team that raced last year in ARCA. They didn’t even bother with the usual qualifying gimmicks such as lightweight oils to gain a fraction of a second.
“There was no way we were going to have an opportunity to qualify good enough to be locked in,” said Bires, who lost his Nationwide Series ride because of a lack of sponsorship.
“It’s the Daytona 500, and getting the opportunity to qualify in, that’s a lot of fun in itself.”