Bristol: Alan Gustafson gambled at Michigan and it cost driver Mark Martin dearly in his chances to make the Chase for the championship.
There was no chance, though, they’d change their strategy at Bristol Motor Speedway, even though Martin is clinging to a berth in the 12-driver field.
Gustafson went with an aggressive setup Friday that won Martin the pole, his fifth of the season.
“It feels like I’m carrying a 200-pound gorilla on my shoulders,” Martin said after turning a lap at 124.484 mph.
“I didn’t need to choke today and we got a great lap. It’s a real big battle, mostly because I want to make the (Chase) for my team. For me, I’ve had lots of brutal disappointments. I care for this team, that’s why I want it so bad. They want it so bad, and they dig so hard.”
Martin and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team head into Saturday night’s race with a precarious 12-point lead over Brian Vickers, the 13th driver in the standings. Despite a series-high four wins this season, they’re in this position because of early season bad luck and a disastrous pit call last week.
Gustafson gambled and didn’t bring Martin in for fuel, a gaffe that turned a certain top-10 finish into a 31st when the tank ran dry in the closing laps.
Gustafson said Friday he immediately regretted the decision, but learned a valuable lesson.
“I wasn’t gambling to stretch the gas, I was gambling that there would be one more caution,” he said. “At the moment, I was thinking about racing for a win. I wasn’t thinking about making the Chase. It was a poor job of considering the big picture, and, knock on wood, I’ll be better about that in the Chase.”
Martin has been overwhelmingly supportive of Gustafson and the team in the days since the fuel mistake because he wants to make the Chase for his crew. Although he’s considered the best driver to never win a championship — he finished second an agonizing four times — he’s insisted winning a title was not his goal this year.
But now that the team has shown such muscle, he wants to reward his guys with a chance at a championship. He said earlier Friday his team would be “devastated” if they miss the Chase.
“All these guys on this team mean so much to me and they dig so hard,” he said. “They give me such great race cars and we’re just trying to let our performance do our work for us. We can’t worry a whole lot about the racing Gods, but if we put our performance out there on the race track, we hope that takes care of us.”
Martin also won the pole here in March and finished sixth, the first step in climbing from 34th in the standings to Chase contention.
Gustafson believes that barring bad luck — and they had plenty at the start of the year, a rain-shortened race, two blown motors and a blown tire in the first four races — Martin will be in the Chase.
“I have faith in this team, and I have faith in Mark,” he said. “We’re as good as anybody out there. And as long as we’ve still got hope, and we do, I’ll continue to have faith.”
Greg Biffle qualified second with a lap of 124.307, and rookie Scott Speed was third.
Biffle, who is 10th in the standings, is rooting for his former teammate to make the Chase even if it puts another title-worthy team into the field.
“I’d like to see Mark Martin in the Chase, personally,” Biffle said. “We know that they’re good and we know that they’ve won three or four races, and he’s running well and they’ll be a threat for the title.”
Dave Blaney qualified fourth for Prism Motorsports, a start-and-park team, and was followed by Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer. Casey Mears was seventh, and Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Reed Sorenson rounded out the top 10.
Meanwhile, feuding drivers Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch qualified 14th and 15th — meaning they’ll start one row apart in Saturday night’s race. More interesting, they’ll likely have to share the back of a pickup truck as they make their pre-race ride during driver introductions.
It could get interesting considering the former teammates are at odds over last weekend’s Nationwide Series race at Michigan. Vickers was running first and Busch was second on the last lap, when Vickers became so preoccupied with Busch that he was unaware that Brad Keselowski was coming fast behind them.
Busch couldn’t get around Vickers, and Keselowski passed them both for the surprise win.
Busch was angry at how Vickers finished the race, and Vickers continued to defend his position Friday.
“I don’t know if you want to call it strike one or strike two, but either way, he’s out of strikes,” Vickers said. “I’m going to race him the way he races me. In my book, he’s out of rope. I’m just done. I’m just to my limit.”
Busch declined several opportunities to speak to reporters Friday.
Max Papis, Mike Skinner, Mike Wallace and Aric Almirola failed to qualify for Saturday night’s race.