By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If there ever was an organization that needed a boost during Speedweeks, it's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
The off-season merger of the former Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing was one that came about more out of necessity than desire. With the economy having impacted sponsorships on race teams such as those two especially hard, it made economic sense to join forces than to try and remain independent entities.
It didn't help that several key officials from both teams departed after the merger was finalized, including former top DEI executives Max Seigel and John Story.
But just when it looked like EGR was destined to be a rudderless ship, at least heading into next Sunday's 51st running of the Daytona 500, a loyal soldier took matters into his own hands.
Martin Truex Jr. earned only the second pole position of his career, but he couldn't have picked a better or bigger venue to do so than Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.
"I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the stuff that goes on during the winter," Truex said of the merger and related deals at DEI. "We felt like we did what was good for our company and that was the right thing for all of us to do. So far, it feels like a step in the right direction. That doesn't guarantee success down the road at the other tracks, but it's a good start to the season, for sure.
"(Both DEI and CGR) were both missing something and we were hoping that putting this deal together was going to make us both better, and that's the plan. So far, it's gone well. A lot of credit has to go to ECR Engines for the motor they brought here for us. It's incredible and it made the difference today."
Truex had some strong runs in practice on Saturday, but it's doubtful anyone could have predicted him to find his way to the top of the 500 qualifying field the following day.
"It feels good, shows how hard the guys have worked and never wavered," Truex said. "This is just the first step but we've never had a car this fast down here. That gives me a lot of confidence that if we can get it handling good, that we can run up front. I'm more excited about this week than I've been coming down here in a long time."
EGR wound up placing three of its four 500 entries in the top seven of Sunday's qualifying session: Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth-fastest, while promising youngster Aric Almirola, who had shared a ride with Mark Martin the last two years at DEI, was seventh-fastest.
"It's just rewarding to come here with a lot of hard work put in by a lot of people," EGR co-owner Chip Ganassi said. "Bringing two companies together is a difficult task and a painful thing for a lot of people on all sides of it.
"My hat is off to these guys because there was a core group of people that never wavered and never lost focus on what they wanted to do. Today, putting three cars in the top seven spots is quite a reward for them."
Of significant note, Ganassi's team in the IRL sat on the pole and won last year's Indianapolis 500 and now adds to that list of honors by sitting on the pole. All that's left is to win here next Sunday.
Truex will start from the pole alongside veteran Mark Martin, who also surprised with his strong effort. Martin has returned to full-time competition for 2009 to make one last attempt at earning the biggest thing that has eluded him in his racing career: his first Sprint Cup championship.
"I can't wait to get out there in the draft; it's so fast," Martin said. "Everybody on this race team is so charged up. It's just so fun to go to work every day and I'm glad it's just about ready to start.
"It's just such a thrill for me to be a part of Hendrick Motorsports and get an opportunity to drive a race car with a race team like this – and with this kind of power under the hood is pretty exciting for me."
Only Truex and Martin's positions are assured for the 500. The remainder of the qualifying field will be determined in Thursday's Gatorade Twin 150 qualifying races.
"I wish we were starting in another five minutes," Martin said. "Just give me enough time to strap in and get started."
Truex and Martin have never won a Daytona 500, but feel they both have a chance at taking the checkered flag next Sunday.
Martin, who will be making his 25th career start in the 500, barely missed winning the Great American Race two years ago, falling short by a quarter-fender length to winner Kevin Harvick. It remains his highest career finish the 500.
"I could taste it and was willing to wreck to win," Martin said. "I was very close and did everything I possibly could do."
That finish helped inspire Martin to not only come back full-time under the Hendrick banner this season, but also to take advantage of perhaps the best organization he's ever been involved with to not only win that elusive championship, but also that elusive Daytona 500 win.
"I'm very motivated," Martin said. "I don't know how many more (chances to win) I'll get, so I'm going to try real hard to make the most of it."
With the top 35 drivers in owner points locked in to starting spots, along with guaranteed spots for former past champions Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte, only four drivers – out of 17 still eligible to make the 500 – will emerge from Thursday's Twins to make the 43-car field for next Sunday's big race.
It was also a promising debut for Stewart Haas Racing, as defending Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman was third-fastest and teammate Tony Stewart was 10th-fastest.
Other drivers of note and how they placed Sunday: veteran driver and former Cup champ Bill Elliott (fifth), defending three-time champ Jimmie Johnson (sixth), four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon (ninth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), Kyle Busch (15th), rookie Joey Logano (21st) and last season's championship runner-up, Carl Edwards (26th).