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Mark Martin sits atop poll at Dover Speedway
NASCAR Dover Auto Rac Heal
Driver Mark Martin poses with the flag after he won the pole during qualifying for today's race in Dover, Del. - photo by Associated Press

DOVER, Del. — Mark Martin has more poles than candles on the birthday cake.

Not bad for a driver pushing limits in a stock car long after so many elite athletes have settled into retirement.

Martin took the last qualifying ride of the day and turned a lap of 158.297 mph on Saturday to win the pole at Dover International Speedway.

The 53-year-old Martin now has 54 career Sprint Cup poles and won it in the No. 55 Toyota.

That 53-54-55 trifecta paid off big for Martin on the Monster Mile. Even with all those 50s, Martin is no golden oldie.

He has three poles this season in 10 races while racing a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing. He's looking for his first Cup win Sunday since 2009.

"I feel like a lucky guy to be strapping in that 55," Martin said.

Waltrip was among the first to greet Martin after the winning lap.

"I'm so proud of you. That's amazing," Waltrip told him.

Martin has turned into a driver-for-hire over the latter stages of a career that has seen him do it all except win a Cup championship. He spent the past three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but changed teams in the offseason, joining Waltrip for a partial season.

Martin is slated to run 24 of 36 races this season while sharing seat time with Waltrip. He has four top-10 finishes over his first nine races and was third at Texas.

"They're learning about me, I'm learning about them, and we're having a blast," Martin said.

Jimmie Johnson, who was six career wins at Dover, was poised to earn the top spot with a lap of 158.263 mph until Martin knocked him off.

Johnson heard some good-natured razzing from driver Matt Kenseth in the garage as they waited for the rest of the field to qualify.

"It was the purple balloons! It was the purple balloons!" Kenseth shouted.

Johnson was briefly confused about the good-luck charm until he realized he had balloons on his firesuit as part of his one-race deal to promote the talking-animal movie, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted."

Johnson has yet to win a pole this season. Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Kenseth round out the top five. Points leader Greg Biffle starts seventh.

Johnson, who won the All-Star race in Charlotte, wants to keep Hendrick Motorsports' recent of run of strong finishes going at Dover. Johnson and teammate Kasey Kahne won the last two Cup races. Teammates Jeff Gordon starts 14th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 17th.

"We don't want to let the boss down," Johnson said of Rick Hendrick. "We want to get all four in the Chase."

Martin has five poles to go with his five wins on the 1-mile concrete track at Dover.

Martin is as physically fit and dedicated to healthy eating and clean living as any other driver in the garage. His lifestyle has played as much a critical part of extending a Cup career that dates to 1981.

"I'm going to have to look into his dietary intake and start eating what he does before qualifying, because it's been working," Newman said. "He's always been an awesome qualifier."

Martin, who turned 53 in January, won his first NASCAR race at Dover in 1987 on the second-tier circuit now known as the Nationwide Series.

Joey Logano, who starts 11th, was born in 1990.

"You couldn't get a ride when you were Joey Logano's age when I was coming in," Martin said. "You had to wait for Bobby Allison or Richard Petty or Cale Yarborough or somebody to step aside because there were only seven, eight, nine or 10 good cars."

When the green flag drops Sunday, Martin will officially make his 840th career start. He has 40 career Cup wins, but none since he won five times for Hendrick in 2009.

"If any young driver ever wants to think about racing in NASCAR, that should be their role model," Waltrip said. "He's committed, he's focused, he's energetic, he's enthusiastic, he's appreciative. I couldn't be prouder that he has on that suit with Michael Waltrip Racing on it."

He almost retired in 2005 and dubbed the season the "Salute To You" tour as a season-long thank you to his fans.

Seven years later, he's here and still a threat to win.

"He's tried to retire a few times, but just can't do it," a smiling Johnson said. "That fire still burns in him."