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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr., seemingly appeared to defend his turf at Michigan International Speedway. In a small window of time, that all changed.
Seconds after the Quicken Loans 400 champion from June finished qualifying with a speed of 195.822, Matt Kenseth crossed the start/finish line to take over as the provisional pole holder for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. Kenseth's lead seemed a little more stable.
Yet when 33-year-old Carl Edwards appeared to take over the pole, NASCAR's elder statesman whipped through his final two laps of the day. Mark Martin, driver of the No. 55 Toyota, ended Edwards' brief stay atop the leaderboard.
The 53-year-old's top lap speed of 199.706 miles per hour bested Edwards' speed of 198.626, and clinched Martin his first pole in 54 races at MIS.
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Martin maintained some perspective after winning the pole.
"To be able to get that lap, it's a nice thing," Martin said. "I know how hard these things are to win and I know that not only does the fastest car not always win the race, but it just takes a whole lot."
Even more remarkable for Martin? He's driven in only three of the last eight Sprint Cup races. His last finish came Aug. 5, when he was 12th at the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.
"At this stage of his career, to be 53, I really look at it and say, what he's done for the last 15-20 years, from a physical fitness standpoint and a nutrition standpoint, it's what keeps him sharp today," said Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in qualifying with a lap speed of 198.440.
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Still, the top Sprint Cup qualifying speeds were only a few miles per hour under those from June's qualifying session for the Quicken Loans 400 at MIS.
At the two-mile oval in June, 19 drivers broke the 200-miles-per-hour mark, including Marcus Ambrose, who set a track record of 203.241.
Driving on a cooler day with a specified set of Goodyear tires for Sunday's race, Ambrose finished eighth in Friday's qualifying, with a lap speed of 197.493.
"We're in qualifying trim and teams work out what's different with the tire, and they start changing the setup and the bounce of the vehicle to give them the best performance," said Ambrose, who won last weekend's Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen at Watkins Glen International. "You see how fast NASCAR teams work and how much better they get the cars."
Martin Truex, Jr., summed up the driver progression on the track.
"The track came around, so at the end of practice, it was good," said Truex, who finished seventh in qualifying (197.650). "Everybody's faster. It was cool."
After the final car crossed the finish line, Martin's pole victory was official. Earnhardt finished 22nd in qualifying Kenseth finished fourth. Following the afternoon qualifying session, Edwards credited Martin's fast lap to the obvious factor -- experience.
Edwards paid due respect to one of NASCAR's elder statesmen.
"I had Mark Martin toys when I was a little kid, and here he is," said Edwards who was 2 years old in Martin's first NASCAR season of 1981. "There are generations of people who have all had little Mark Martin toys and who knows? My kids might be racing one day against the guy -- and they might be just as frustrated."
As he got out of the car at pit road after completing his second qualifying lap, Martin made a declaration, one that was, most likely, based upon maturity.
"When you're an old guy," Martin said, "you've got to keep a job."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.