Updated: March 28, 2014, 5:43 PM ET

Kyle Busch rolls to first Martinsville pole

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Finishing ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway is never a bad thing, and fairly unusual these days.

So even though it was just a qualifying session and he didn't even set the new track record, Kyle Busch will take it.

As a matter of fact, he'll take about anything at Martinsville.

Busch, who won last week at Auto Club Speedway to virtually cinch a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, earned the pole for Sunday's STP 500 with a best lap of 99.674 mph. Busch broke Denny Hamlin's previous mark of 99.595 mph.

"Denny is always really good at here at Martinsville," Busch said after his first pole in 19 attempts at Martinsville. "I think we always come here, we always predict him to either win or finish second to [Johnson].

"It's those two guys you really look at to be the best here. I think [Gordon] has been really good the past couple times as well. And he was really strong last week, so I'm sure he's a man on a mission as well. He really wants to see a win as well. Martinsville being early like this in the season and being one of Denny's favorite places, of course, I think you will see him try hard, work hard to be the guy who can win."

Busch has never won at Martinsville.

Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Hamlin, will start second, followed by Penske Racing's Joey Logano -- who set a track record of 100.201 in the first round of the knockout session -- and eight-time Martinsville winner Johnson.

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Always emotional for Hendrick team

By Brant James | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon enter the weekend -- having been denied late-race chances at victory last week -- as the active co-leading winners at Martinsville Speedway. It's also the 30th anniversary of their powerhouse team's first NASCAR Sprint Cup triumph.

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And almost a decade after a Hendrick Motorsports team plane crashed on a foggy day into nearby Bull Mountain -- killing all 10 on board, including the son and brother of team owner Rick Hendrick as well as two of his nieces -- there is the distinct possibility of several storylines, emotional and purely statistical, resolving themselves in the hills of rural Virginia.

Trips to Martinsville are both raw and rewarding for Hendrick and its drivers. Time and place and circumstance often dictate the emotion, Johnson said. This weekend has been no different.

"It just depends on what activates my mind," he said. "Like today, I woke up, it's overcast. It's cloudy. The whole week leading into Martinsville I'm excited to come here, to race, and I feel like I have a great chance to win. And I wake up this morning and it's overcast and I can't help but think about the airplane accident. It depends on what triggers the thought process."

Johnson and Gordon have combined to win 11 of the last 19 races at Martinsville since Johnson earned his first win here in October 2004, the day of the plane crash. With eight wins each at the .526-mile oval -- the shortest on the Sprint Cup schedule -- the teammates again figure to be prime protagonists. Johnson won the spring race last season and Gordon won in the fall.

An early-season victory at Martinsville has never been so tangibly valuable, with a newly implemented points system for this season virtually guaranteeing entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win. Neither Johnson nor Gordon has won yet this season -- with Johnson sustaining a late tire failure last week while leading at Fontana, Calif., and Gordon losing the inherited lead after a late caution -- and Martinsville could provide the opportunity to begin gaming for the playoffs with 20 races left until they start.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

Behold Air Titan 2.0

By Brant James | ESPN.com

NASCAR on Friday unveiled the next iteration of a technology it hopes to never use again -- but probably will use this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Air Titan, the innovative track-drying device first used last year, has been redeployed as Air Titan 2.0.

The new system is expected to reduce track-drying time by 25 to 50 percent, according to NASCAR vice president of innovation and racing development Gene Stefanyshyn, and reduce fuel consumption by 78 percent (as much as 90 percent under optimal weather conditions).

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NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell said the impact of the system goes beyond providing a timely event for those watching in person and on television. Company research, he said, has indicated that a fickle public, which often waits until just before events to purchase, factors the presence of Air Titan into its decision to attend.

"With people purchasing later and later, whenever they knew Air Titan was going to be there, they were 50 percent more likely to buy," he said.

O'Donnell said the total cost of the project would not be available for a few more weeks, but NASCAR has absorbed the developmental outlay. Decisions are ongoing, he said, about whether to lease the system to tracks or produce enough for them to purchase.

Stefanyshyn theorized a 200 percent increase in drying capacity for Air Titan 2.0, which is aided by drier and warmer ambient air, wind and sun.

There are 21 Air Titan 2.0s currently in service, with eight deployed at Martinsville, where a high probability of rain is forecast for Friday and Saturday. An accompanying sweeper truck collects the water pushed off the track by Air Titan 2.0.

"Essentially, it's a quick drying process that has two steps: The first thing we endeavor to do is remove as much water off the track as we can so it's a rapid water removal; then it's followed by an accelerated evaporation process of the remaining water film," Stefanyshyn said. "The Air Titan 2 is a self-contained unit, it's a low pressure unit, and it's capable of team deployment and independent tactical deployment, so we'll be able to pick these units individually and send them to the areas on the track where they need to be sent."

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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