MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Roush Fenway Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth couldn't have asked for a better scenario than rain washing out qualifying for Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway.
Edwards had never qualified better than seventh on the 0.526-mile oval, and Kenseth had never qualified better than 14th before weather handed them the front row spots Saturday.
"Qualifying, I think, is one of the most important parts of this race and it's no secret that's been a tough thing for me and Matt as well, so I think it's best-case for us that we get to start on the front row, and even better is the pit stall selection," Edwards said.
"I think that's gonna last all day no matter how much we have to work on the car."
With only four races left in the season, and a lead of just 14 points over Kenseth, 18 over Brad Keselowski and 19 over Tony Stewart, Edwards will take all the help he can get. He has four top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at the oldest track in the series, while Kenseth has seven top 10s in 23 starts. Neither has won here, while some of the other contenders have.
Stewart has won twice, but not since 2006, and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is 50 points off the lead, has been to Victory Lane six times, last in 2009.
Of course, apart from being able to select the pit stall at the front of pit road, giving him unimpeded access back onto the track, the other contenders will start up front, too.
"It almost takes qualifying out of the equation," Edwards said.
The racing will be another matter entirely, and when the teams finally got onto the track Saturday for their only practice session before the race, Johnson was third fastest, while Kenseth was 24th and Edwards 29th. On runs of 10 consecutive laps, Johnson's speed of 95.322 mph was well faster than Kenseth (29th, 93.953 mph) and Edwards (30th, 93,851 mph).
Besides speed, it's also nearly impossible to get through 500 laps around the paper clip-shaped oval without sustaining some damage to your car, and with a poor track record, Edwards' team will try to build off the setup Kenseth used for his sixth-place run here in the spring.
"What we'll probably do is put whatever (setup) Matt had on it the last race and hope for the best," said Edwards, who finished 18th in the spring race. "In a perfect world, you would want something ... that you could adjust on more because you don't have as much practice and you maybe don't have as much knowledge built up as to what exactly the setup is going to do."
For Edwards, that uncertainty is all part of the dread of coming to Martinsville.
"For the last few races, I've come to it dreading it a little bit, but now I come to it just realizing, 'Hey, I've got my work cut out for me. I have to perform well. I have to go out here and give everything I've got,' and, to me, to come out of here with a top 10 would be a success," he said, adding that boosting his lead from 5 to 14 points last weekend helped.
Edwards finished only 11th at Talladega, but Kevin Harvick dropped from second to fifth after finishing 32nd, and Johnson finished 26th, falling 15 more points off the pace.
"If we would have come in here tied with like (Kevin Harvick) or Jimmie (Johnson) or somebody like that, I'd be really nervous because I'd say they had an advantage. I'd say they could do more damage to us in that situation, but having a little bit of a cushion based on our good fortune last week, I just look at it as a challenge," Edwards said.
Edwards' position, Johnson said, can be harder than the one everyone else faces.
"When you're protecting something, you're almost in the way of thinking that glass is half full and I've got to be careful. In qualifying, I'd better make sure I make a perfect lap. If it doesn't turn out well, OK, then now I'm in traffic and there could be a crash. You start thinking down a negative line of thought," the only driver to win five straight titles said.
"For me, chasing, there was far less negative thoughts in my mind; it was all aggression. Pretty simple; you've got to qualify well. If you don't, well, now I've got to figure out how to get through these guys. I need to go lead a lap. There is just a small subtle change in how you approach things. ... I had more fun last year chasing Denny (Hamlin) than I did other years protecting something. But I would much rather be in a position of protecting," Johnson said.