Mark Martin is the oldest kid in the NASCAR sandbox, and yesterday he proved that he can still be the fastest. Turning the second fastest lap on his first run around the track there was nowhere to go but up. On his second time around the 3/4 mile D shaped oval he topped the speed set by Carl Edwards just minutes earlier to take the pole for tonight’s Capitol City 400 presented by Virginia is For Lovers. Setting the pace at 128.327 mph was enough for the 53 year old to take the coveted pole position. So how does the oldest kid on the block feel about taking his 5th pole in Richmond?
”As far as I’m concerned, this is just as big a deal,” he said.
After running his laps Martin showed his trademark humility about how his talent and experience kept him out front.
”I was very close to skinning the car up, especially off of four [on] the second lap,” Martin said. ”I’m driving it as hard as I can go, and at the very limits of my talent.”
“I did not ask Rodney [Childers] what he put under the car,” said Martin. “We made some improvements to the car in happy Hour [final practice] in race setup right at the end.
“If it would have been me, I probably would have incorporated those changes into the qualifying setup, and I didn’t want to ask Rodney if he did or not, or what he did to the car. All I want to do is roll out on the race track with no preconceived notion and drive it as fast as it’d go and rely on him and his judgment.”
“I was really hoping that he [Childers] would call me [on the radio] on the first lap and tell me to shut it down — I told him to tell me to shut it down if we happened to get the pole on the first lap. When he didn’t, I was afraid, ‘Oh, no, we’re 15th-fastest. That wasn’t near fast enough, and I’ve really got to get up on the wheel.’
“I was very close to skinning the car up, especially off of [Turn] 4 on the second lap, and that was my concern. That was my concern in practice, as well. Both the qualifying runs I made in practice, I almost skinned it up, too. So I was driving as hard as I can go — at the very limit of my talent, for sure — and if I keep pushing the limits, I’m going to run out of talent here, one of these days.”
Carl Edwards will be sitting on the outside of row 1 beside Martin when the green flag drops tonight. Edwards’ top lap at 128.290 had hung on through 17 drivers, but when Martin moved to second on the scoring tower with his first lap, Edwards paid much closer attention.
”I thought we had him, and then he shot up to the top of the scoreboard,” he said.
Edwards was asked how he feels his 2012 season is playing out and what he feels about the fans concerns about the log green flags in the previous races causing a drop in the ratings from fans looking for more excitement in the form of wrecks and/or tempers flaring on and off the track.
“We are [11th] in points and don’t have a win,” Edwards said of his status. “It is not like we are tied for first right now. We have to be very cautious with our points. Let’s say we know some things. Let’s assume some things that are true. Right now we don’t have the fastest car on the race track every week so we can say, ‘Alright for the next 16 or 18 races we might still not have the fastest car.’
“Under the old points system we would say, ‘Damn, we are already ninth and not running that great, let’s just go for it here. Let’s do some crazy stuff and get a win or two and have some fun.’ But we can’t do that now because we say that we have to make it into the top 10. We cannot give up any points.
“What we are banking on, what we hope comes is that we hope in those last 10 races that we are good enough then to go shoot for the championship.”
“If you were in my position you would never be able to forgive yourself if you were ninth in points here in Richmond and they drop the green flag on the last restart and you have a great race car and you go for some banzai run and wreck the thing and don’t make the Chase.
“Let’s say those last 10 races we have a hell of a run and would have won the thing if we would have made it. I would be a moron to give it up right here at Richmond. I don’t know if that is right or wrong but that is why it ends up this way because guys start to think, ‘OK, just gather all your troops here, focus, work everything out, make the Chase and then go get ’em.’ That wasn’t intended by NASCAR I am sure but that is the way we feel.”
Last week some comments by Dale Earnhardt Jr caused a bit of a firestorm in the garage when he stated that he felt he was the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports, maybe even the best in the entire garage. In Friday’s interview session at Richmond International Raceway he reconfirmed his opinion and then in final practice for Saturday’s Capital City 400, put an exclamation point on it by outrunning 44 other drivers.
“That is a healthy debate, that is healthy among race fans as far as who is the best driver,” Earnhardt said. “All the drivers in the garage feel like they are the best, individually, and they should. That is kind of the way you have to approach it.
“I figured that was definitely debatable and the race fans are going to voice their opinion and that’s good. I certainly don’t like to rock any boats, but you have to answer the question honestly.”
Jr lays a lot of his confidence at the feet of Steve Letarte for giving him the best equipment he can, and for being the best cheerleader in the business. Keeping his mind in the game when frustration might normally take over, and keeping him focused on the race are just a few of the things Jr credits his crew chief for.
“He’s definitely made me more accountable, would be a way to explain it for the words I choose to use and how I choose to describe the car to him,” Earnhardt said of Letarte. “He’s not going to put up with me verbally abusing him or the equipment. I wouldn’t expect anything less than him being a professional, as well.”
“I think we have a good in-race relationship. He does a really good job of providing me with information and calming me that we are going to fix any issues we have. I feel confident that he has fixed enough issues and improved the car during enough races that I don’t really get as worried about it when something isn’t quite right. I know that the chances of it getting improved and fixed are really good.
“I’ve got great confidence in him and his abilities to orchestrate the weekend as good as I would expect. We get along really good because of that confidence between each other. I think there is good trust there, too.”
That confident attitude send waves through his team and pit crew as well.
“I learned a long time ago that if you don’t have confidence in your car that can be problematic for you,” Earnhardt said. “If you don’t have confidence in your crew chief then that can be problematic for you and if you don’t have the same confidence in yourself it’s not conducive to being successful.
“You have to feel like you’re here and you’re the best and that is the way you should feel. In any profession, you have to have that kind of confidence.”
So off we go to Richmond tonight, under the lights, for what some drivers call a race on the ultimate short track. Get those helmet straps and set belts tightened folks, it’s looking like a good race tonight.