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Sunday 4 March 2012

Wily Martin earns Sprint Cup pole for Phoenix race
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Mark Martin switched teams in the offseason to join Michael Waltrip Racing, the latest move in his multistop career.

Wherever he has 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 pole on one of the final qualifying runs Saturday for today's Subway Fresh Fit 500 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 today'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 pole, sitting atop the grid with 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 final 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 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 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 started after nearly two days of weather delays, leading two laps before finishing 10th at NASCAR's biggest race.

Martin followed that by grabbing the pole at PIR, where he has 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.

"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 also made a change in the offseason. He 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 from Penske Racing to serve as his 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 a factor, finishing 16th to extend his winless streak at the Daytona 500 to 14 years.

"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," Stewart said.

After today's race, drivers will head to Las Vegas for the March 11 Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Edwards is the defending champion.

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