Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lead field in NASCAR's Daytona 500
Veteran NASCAR driver Mark Martin, still seeking his first Daytona 500 victory, won the pole position for this year's 500 and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified second.
Martin, 51, turned a lap of 191.188 mph Saturday on the high-banked, 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, and Earnhardt -- the 2004 Daytona 500 winner and the most popular driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- followed at 190.913 mph.
Under the Daytona 500's unique qualifying format, the remaining 41 starting spots for the Feb. 14 race will be determined by how the drivers finish in two qualifying races at Daytona on Thursday.
While Martin hopes to win his first 500, Earnhardt hopes for a strong start to his season after a disastrous 2009 when he did not win a race, finished 25th in points and failed the qualify for NASCAR's "Chase for the Cup" championship playoff. Jimmie Johnson, another Hendrick driver, won the Chase for the fourth consecutive year in 2009 and Martin finished second.
"Hopefully we can get the ball rolling," Earnhardt said after his qualifying run.
Martin's pole-winning speed was considerably faster than the 188.001 mph set by pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. in last year's Daytona 500 mainly because of a rules change.
NASCAR mandates carburetor-restrictor plates on the cars’ engines at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway to limit speeds in the interest of safety. But NASCAR recently made the plates slightly less restrictive and in effect gave the cars more horsepower.
-- Jim Peltz in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Photo: Daytona 500 pole-sitter Mark Martin was all smiles after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Credit: John Bazemore / Associated Press