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Mark Martin, among the many looking to make the championship playoffs, wins the Richmond 400 pole

  Mark Martin: can he make the playoff cut? Can he win the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Now can Tony Stewart avoid the Kyle Busch syndrome in this fall's title chase?
   Busch dominated last season's regular season but collapsed in the opening weeks of the championship chase.
   And Stewart this year has been atop the Sprint Cup standings since late spring, 13 straight weeks. Stewart also has three wins this his rookie season as owner-driver (Pocono, Daytona and Watkins Glen).  And teammate Ryan Newman, though he still doesn't have a win, has been solid all year too and is on the verge of making the championship playoffs.
   The top-12 in the standings at the end of Saturday night's Chevy Rock&Roll 400 will make the title chase.
   And Mark Martin, one of the men on the bubble, inside the playoff cut but not safely, won the pole Friday for the 400. Martin, at 50, and a man who made his first tour start back in 1981, has never won the Cup championship. And in 2005 he was on the verge of retirement, only to be persuaded to hang around.
    "This is just awesome, to be driving Alan Gustafson's cars," Martin said after his 47th career pole. "I'll rest easy till Saturday. This year I just hoped to win a race, to have a fast race car, and to have good camaraderie with my team. This is beyond my wildest hopes. We don't have to make the chase to 'save' our year. It will be icing...and then we'll just have to see if we can get a cake. if we miss it Saturday, there will be no icing and no cake. The media expectations for me this year were scary, frightening. But this has been beyond my expectations."
    Is Martin going to be conservative this weekend, or wild open?
    That remains to be seen.
    Meanwhile, even if Stewart doesn't win a third NASCAR championship, he says this season "has been a 100 percent fulfilled dream so far.
   "We wanted to get one guy in the chase; that was kind of our unofficial goal. We just wanted to be competitive each week and to feel like we were making progress each weekend. But deep down inside we felt like we could surely get one of the two of us in the chase, and had good potential, if everything went right, to get two.
    "So I am very, very happy with the way we are going into this race.
     "It is a dream to think that we could go out our first year and possibly get all of our cars in the chase."
    The 400 will open the ABC network part of the NASCAR season at 7:30 p.m.
   ESPN's six-race coverage of the tour closed out at Atlanta last weekend with a slight ratings increase over last season. ESPN (whose crew will also handle the ABC part of the series) says that, factoring in rainouts and the fact that only four of the races were common to both the 2008 and 2009, ESPN averaged a 4.15 household-coverage rating, to last year's 4.12 average.
   With the Formula One Piquet controversy and the NHRA John Force controversy, along with the sometimes mysterious caution flags that this sport tends to have, one question here this weekend is how far would a teammate go to help a teammate make the chase….and how far might a rival go to keep a driver out of the chase. There are 10 men vying for the last eight spots in the chase, and the 10 are all very, very close, so it's not an academic question…particularly since in days gone by cautions were sometimes seeming 'for sale' among teams.
   So, if Stewart were leading Saturday's 400, and Newman were running second, and if the only way Newman could make the playoffs was for him to pass Stewart…would Stewart roll over and give Newman the spot?
   That question, in various forms, was asked of a number of drivers Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
   "Oh, man, it would be awful hard to do," Stewart replied. "I need those 10 bonus points (each race winner gets).
    "The great thing, I don't know that it is going to come down to that.
    "I hope it doesn’t come down to that.
    "Ryan ran better than we did here in the spring, so I think he will probably settle that on his own.
    "But, man, you just hope it doesn't even come to that.
     "I think when it comes down it -- then you make that decision.
     "That is a tough decision to have to make as a driver while you are out there."
     Since finishing a lap down --- and it is so easy to lose a lap in a race, with just a cut tire or pit road penalty – could cost a driver as much as 100 points, should those title challengers be worried that a rival might pull something sneaky, like bringing out a caution to keep him a lap down after some mishap?
     Carl Edwards, who broke his foot last week playing Frisbee, is still on crutches, and it's unclear how much that might affect his own title bid. He had an oil cooler problem at Atlanta and finished 36th.
   "My foot is better this week, that's for sure," Edwards said. "I thought I'd have more trouble (with his foot) at this track, but the extra week (of healing) has made my foot feel a lot better. So it shouldn't really be an issue.  I thought it was going to be more of an issue last week, but that ended up being the least of my concerns during the race.  It was fine.
    "We just want to keep this as low-stress a weekend as possible. If we just run well and don't have any failures, and don't get caught up in a wreck, then we should be fine.
   "I keep saying we still haven't seen the worst-case with these double-file restarts. I think there's huge potential for a shake-up, especially as we get towards the end of the year and the stress level for everyone gets higher. You still could have that massive wreck (on a restart) at a place like Texas or California, based on those double-file restarts.
   "And look at what happened last week with Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson – breaking axles. We've got to be ready for anything. Our oil cooler: the difference between being in the chase and winning the championship could be 30 seconds in the pits or 10 seconds in the pits or one lap on the track."
   And teammate Greg Biffle is really feeling the heat to make the cut: "This sport is about the chase…it's about those 12 guys, and going to the banquet.  It's about exposure and TV spots and exposure for your sponsors -- and that all comes with the chase.
    "The chase and those 12 guys are spotlighted in our sport. And it's rough to be on the outside.  I was for two years in a row (missing the cut in 2007 and 2006) and I'm close to making it now."
The starting lineup for Saturday night's Richmond Chevy Rock&Roll 400





Biffle, it's about FIGHTING

Biffle, it's about FIGHTING FOR THE WIN. Forget about points, forget about the stupid banquet, just go for the win in the race.

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