- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mark Martin picked Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the spot he plans to end his 97-race winless streak.

Then he announced it to all of NASCAR, an uncharacteristic burst of boldness that surprised other drivers.

“When Mark said that, I looked at him … because Mark never is optimistic about things,” two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said. “The fact that he was so confident about it, I couldn’t believe it was Mark Martin.

“I think that’s a huge statement.”

Was it ever.

Martin turned a lap Saturday at 181.393 mph in his Chevrolet to beat everyone in qualifying except Johnson. His lap of 181.763 gave him his first pole at the Brickyard and an up-close look at what Martin has in store for the field in Sunday’s Allstate 400.

“He’s a much better racer than he is at qualifying, so I would assume he’s going to be one of the guys to beat,” said Johnson, who won the 2006 race here. “Of course, I’m very optimistic about our car and what we’re doing. But for Mark to go out and say that type of comment, he’s got something in store for us.”

Martin, as is his manner, downplayed his supposed guarantee after qualifying. Made in June at Pocono Raceway, the veteran said he didn’t mean to sound so certain victory was his to take.

”I didn’t feel like when I made the statement, like [it was] Babe Ruth pointing. Maybe it was, but I didn’t mean it that way,” Martin said. “But I did mean that we were going to come here and be strong and I feel like no matter what happens tomorrow I can halfway save face on that because [I was in the] top 10 in both practices and we’ve qualified second, so I feel that prediction is coming true.”

Ryan Newman qualified third in a Dodge and was followed by Kasey Kahne and four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon. He was followed by Elliott Sadler and Kurt Busch, then the Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

Defending race winner Tony Stewart had the highest-qualifying Toyota at 14th, and teammate Kyle Busch, the series points leader, was 19th.

Failing to qualify were Bill Elliott, the 2002 Brickyard winner who had appeared in all 14 previous races here, Johnny Sauter, Stanton Barrett and Tony Raines.

Although Martin likes his chances, he’ll most certainly have his hands full with Johnson, Gordon and the Hendrick Motorsports fleet. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 11th, and the three Chevrolets have been the best in nearly every practice session.

Johnson and Gordon went 1-2 in Happy Hour, and Gordon paced Saturday’s first session.

For Johnson, it was the pickup he needed after losing to Kyle Busch two weeks ago in Chicago. Johnson erred on the final restart, giving Busch the opening he needed to grab the lead away en route to his series-best seventh victory.

For most of the past three years, it’s been Johnson who did that to opponents. So messing up in Chicago was particularly hard on the champion.

“I was really mad at myself. There was no one to blame but myself for losing that race,” he said. “For days after that I kicked myself. Then as I knew I was coming to Indy and getting my mind ready to come race here, I started kicking myself again.

“So that was my fault. I apologized to my team over and over. They’re tired of hearing it, but we should have had that trophy. That was our race.”

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