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Mark Martin! The old man is putting a whippin' on 'em, and he's on the Kansas 400 pole

  Mark Martin (L) and crew chief Alan Gustafson rise to the challenge, shrugging off the chilly, windy weather and that simmering NASCAR inspection controversy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Mark Martin! This season's sentimental favorite for the NASCAR championship just keeps on clicking.
   Shrugging off the week's controversy over his Dover car and NASCAR's post-race inspection, the Sprint Cup tour's points leader fired up the weekend here at Kansas Speedway with his seventh pole of the season, a personal best in a career spanning back to 1981.
   So it will be Rick Hendrick Chevrolets 1-2-3 for the 2 p.m. ET start Sunday, with surprising Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the outside of the front row, and rookie Brad Keselowski, the Talladega winner, right behind Martin.
   "It's been incredible…and I try not to think too far forward…because I don't want to think about the possibility of letting all those people down," Martin said, in typical humility about these final eight races in the title chase.
   "It's been Christmas every day for me this year."
    But here he's certainly got a fast car, again: "Have you ever stepped on a cat's tail? They make a squeal and then they take off really fast," Martin said. "That's the way it felt like when I stepped on the gas today, like I stepped on a cat's tail."
   Among 12 title contenders Kurt Busch had the toughest day; he'll start 41st. And Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman didn't fare much better. Newman says nobody is going to nickel-and-dime their way back into contention: "Our best lately – top-10s -- is not keeping up with Mark and Jimmie and their top-fives. We have to do better than top-10s if they're going to keep doing top-fives." But he'll be starting deep in the pack.
  But as happy as Martin is, Earnhardt apparently is not. Is change in the wind for him and crew chief Lance McGrew in 2010? Does team owner Rick Hendrick have other plans?
   "I like working with Lance, I get along great with Lance," Earnhardt says slowly. "We have had some great runs, and I feel I can build on that success with Lance. And I hope that we're successful the rest of the year and that we go into next season with the same group of guys.
  "But the decision isn't mine, and never will be mine. The decision is Rick's and his management team.
   "So I hope that we'll have more success and continue to give Rick and the people that do make those types of decisions good reason to keep us as a team and keep us working together because I really do enjoy working with him.
  "I feel I'm a different race car driver than I've been over the last several years...just my temperament throughout the races and the weekend. I still have to check myself every once in a while. I get a little angry. But these cars can frustrate you.
  "But for the most part, Lance is really great at controlling the situation and controlling our team and directing our team.
  "I've enjoyed the experience working with him."
  Two of the day's top stories were the NASCAR furor over the Martin and Jimmie Johnson Dover cars and Joey Logano's flipping crash at Dover last Sunday.
   Logano emerged relatively unscathed from his barrel roll, though he was shaken. And he's back racing again here in Sunday's 400-miler, qualifying 20th.
   Fortunately Logano's car kept tumbling, and expending energy that way, instead of just slamming hard into the wall.
   But that crash, and an NFL medical report, does prompt some questions….like about concussions.
   That recent medical report that shows that National Football League players may suffer from apparently concussion-related dementia in significantly larger numbers than the general population could strike a chord in the NASCAR garage, where concussions have been a fact of life for years.
   Then again, maybe not.
   Stock car drivers take hard hits all the time, and they typically shrug them off.  
   NASCAR now has black-box data records in these cars and Trucks to record impact data, and Ron Hornaday says his last hard crash a few weeks ago was a huge 68-G hit.
   The late Neil Bonnett, for example, took a series of hard hits and then after a relatively minor bump at Darlington he completely lost part of his memory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recounted a very hard hit at California Speedway one February that left him more than a little off-kilter for several months, though he declined to reveal that to anyone at the time. And Jerry Nadeau is still suffering major problems from the crash at Richmond in 2003 that ended his career.
   Of course NASCAR's safety work with these stock cars and safety equipment, and drivers' work with helmets, has been extensive over the past few years. And NASCAR keeps close tabs on drivers' medical issues, particularly after crashes.
    Digging into the NASCAR history books there are some really sad stories about drivers who hit the wall once too often – like …Herb Thomas in the 1950s and LeeRoy Yarbrough in the 1960s and 1970s, for example. And certainly things are much, much, much better for NASCAR drivers these days.
   Nevertheless medical evidence is that concussions are cumulative. And it's unclear how closely NASCAR's medical department really tracks driver concussions.
    Jeff Gordon, who took a very hard hit at Texas a few years ago, and who took a hard hit at Las Vegas last year, still remembers this one: http://bit.ly/2f3nOi
   "I've had some really bad hits -- where you hit driver-side to a non-Safer barrier (soft wall), which is not a lot of fun," Gordon says.
    "I would say that my biggest hits came Las Vegas….Pocono was a really big hit.
   "It's only recently that we started measuring the impact. So you can only sort of say 'This is what I felt,' and "This seemed to me to be one of the bigger hits.'
    "Texas we had a huge, huge impact. It was just a blown right-front tire, and one shot, right-front to the wall. Those are usually the worst hits…or the driver-side that slaps the wall.
    "With the Safer barrier it certainly takes a lot of the impact away.
    "When I saw Joey's crash, it was one of those perfect storms, where he gets spun around and just as he's impacting the wall a car gets into him that got under the car. As it got light, there was a car there to pick him up and send him rolling."
    Coming back after a hard crash isn't always easy: "After one crash I had to test at Phoenix two days later…so I wasn't having a lot of fun at Phoenix.
    "When you make a mistake that gets you into a bad wreck, then that will take you back a little bit for a while. But it doesn't take long to build back up to that."
    In light of the NFL dementia report, does Gordon or his doctor keep track of all those hits, those crashes, those G-impacts, and track them?
   "I can't remember," Gordon said with a laugh.
   "Any time I've had a big impact I've been thoroughly checked out. I've had some MRIs done.
    "You can really only tell based on those things, and a few little motor-skills tests.
    "I definitely feel like over my career I've had some very, very slight concussions, but I've never been knocked out in a crash. I think that goes a long way towards your future.
    "I don't know what other guys do, but I'm pretty thorough about the medical attention I get, as well as what NASCAR does.
    "So if I ever felt like there was a situation that needed to have a lot more follow-up and attention, then I would…and I feel like I have good enough people around me that if they recognized something like that they would also highly recommend it."

   Now Sunday's race is not quite the Last Chance 400, but some of the championship chase challengers face a long climb back to get back into title contention. If they even can, as hot as Martin and Johnson are.
   Even Gordon is having trouble keeping pace.
   -- Denny Hamlin had a terrible day at Dover: "I did want to have damage control there; but I didn't expect to run 20th or wherever we finished.  We expect more from ourselves than that.
   "Once I realized we had a 20th-place car, it was my job to make sure we finished there and didn't end up with 30th or 40th due to a wreck.  I was pretty much avoiding everybody because I knew we just didn't have the car.
   "Anytime you finish where we did at Dover, your confidence is not going to be near what it was.  So I'm sitting on pit road right before practice today, thinking I'm going to pretend I just came off a win.
    "It's easy to put it out of your head, especially if you have a good day: Tomorrow is a good day. And then you follow it up with a good finish on Sunday. 
    "But I think it looks crappy now – we're a little bit further behind than we were; we lost 65 or 70 points last week. But we're just going to chip away at it."
   And then there's a little deal in last weekend's Nationwide race between Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, in which Hamlin wound up in the wall, and then the two had a face-off post-race on pit road: "I still see it the same way.  I still don't agree with him, and he hasn't called me to reach out to say he's sorry…so as far as I'm concerned he needs to be worried whenever I'm around."
   Keselowski shrugged off Hamlin's biting comments: "You've got to have some human drama in this, otherwise it's just cars going in circles.
    "I thought he was going to call me. I'll just take a page from the Jimmie Johnson Handbook and say it's all about mental toughness…and I'm mentally tough not to let it bother me."

  The starting lineup for Sunday's Kansas 400 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas



No offense to Jack Roush, but

No offense to Jack Roush, but I can't stop wondering how many more wins, or even how many championships Mark might have now if he had been in Hendrick stuff sooner. Needless to say Mark's driving style has cost him some wins, but conversely has paid huge dividends in the respect column. That respect has kept him from getting taken out countless times, thus keeping him on the track for valuable points. There's a payoff there, it's just impossible to put numbers on. Mark has said plainly that he values the respect from his peers much more than the trophies, and that's why you won't ever see him use his bumper intentionally, not even if it means winning this year's chase. That's one of the reasons I'm a Mark Martin Fan.
Mark certainly had his chances in Roush equipment. And there were the DEI and Ginn cars. Now he's in what's arguably the best team of cars in the garage. Race fans know he's had his share of bad luck and bad timing through the years. It looks like it's his time now.

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