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Mark Martin rebounds at Bristol from Michigan heartbreaker

  Grrrrreat! Tony the Tiger, er, Mark Martin, takes the pole for Saturday's Bristol 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   It's pretty simple: Mark Martin may lose out on a chance to make NASCAR's championship playoffs because he ran out of gas last Sunday at Michigan.
   To say that would be a bummer, for a lousy reason, is understatement.
   A man works all season, and for lack of a gallon or two of gas, misses a chance to run for the NASCAR title.
   And as hard as Martin tries to downplay that twist of fate, it's obvious that it hurts.
   So winning the pole Friday evening for Saturday night's Sharpie 500 was a big boost: "I feel like I've had a gorilla on my shoulders," Martin said after edging Greg Biffle for the top starting spot.
   "The tension has increased…because we should be comfortable (in the standings)…instead of where we are," Martin was saying on the eve of his 1,000th NASCAR career start (Cup, Nationwide and Truck).
   "It's not been quite as much fun lately, as tense as everything is.
   "But we are both working as hard as we can to keep that minimized.
   "Alan and I are both confident in our performance to make it from here. But I'm not so confident in our luck. However I am confident in our performance."

   This 500 will be Martin's 1,000th career NASCAR start, and Jeff Gordon says "It's pretty impressive any way you look at it.
   "Mark is just an extraordinary individual. He transcends the sport.
    "He's just one of those guys who is so talented and so committed…and there are just very few people that come along – ever -- especially in this sport, that are like Mark Martin, and able to do what he's doing right now."

    Sizing up this 500-lapper, Robbie Loomis, general manager of Richard Petty's four-team Dodge operation, says "The biggest thing is this race track is not made for 43 cars. So the first half of the race is getting the right amount of cars to match the size of the race track. 
    "It's real tough to run the bottom and stay there. But that's where you need to be. 
    "Running the bottom, the car usually starts out real tight but gets loose on exit on long runs. 
    "Usually cars get a little bit loose getting into turn three, slide the nose in the middle of the turn, and are loose off.
     "And in the middle of the race, you'll have a 150-lap stint or so when you see the cream come to the top." 
    Of course a big question is NASCAR's new double-file restart rule: "I predict," Carl Edwards says, "that one of these double-file re-starts will have a huge impact on the chase.
    "It's so chaotic – there's so much going on. Especially when we go to a place like Atlanta, California, Charlotte: we are cruising along until something insane happens because you're so packed together. You've got twice as many cars in the same area, and it's wild."
   Edwards and the rest of the men battling for spots in the playoffs worry about this 500: "This race is a bottleneck. It's a lot like a Talladega or a Daytona, where anything can happen.
     "So there are a lot of people with a lot of stress…and I've got just enough to keep me honest.
     "I'm going to be careful here, and try to get through this one and gain ground…and not lose too much."

    The debate over how to tweak this car-of-tomorrow so that it handles better remains a hot one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch raised the issue again last weekend, and Greg Biffle says one key move NASCAR could make to improve the racing would be to let teams off-set the chassis slightly to the left, an inch or so, which would effectively move some of the weight toward the left-side of the car.
   "Left-side weight is very important," Biffle says. "When you go around the corner, centrifugal force is to the outside, so the more weight you can stack to the left, the better the car handles. That's one of the biggest things that we can do -- move weight to the left-side of the car, possibly offset some suspension components."
    That would be a relatively inexpensive fix.
   Another tweak being raised here by crews – NASCAR letting them drop the engine two inches lower, to lower the center of gravity.
   Martin concedes he and crew chief Alan Gustafson took Sunday's problems pretty hard. So Martin had to try to pick up his team: "I worked at it Sunday night right away, and Monday morning.
   "He (Gustafson) is a very, very competitive guy, and he's so smart. It's such a special opportunity in my lifetime to work with him.
    "He was doing much better on Tuesday.
    "Just to lay it out, I've accomplished everything I hoped to accomplish this year already, and much more.
    "The least difficult of all the things I'd hoped to accomplish I thought would be making the chase.
    "It just would be devastating for my team to not be included in that elite group. But they have won more races (four) than anyone else so far this year. I'm proud of that."
    Martin has never won the NASCAR Cup tour championship, but he's come so close so many times in his career, which began in 1981. Now at 50 Martin – and everyone in this sport – realizes he doesn't have many shots left.
    But Martin insists he's upbeat and still has that fire in the belly to make the chase: "Before Chicago (a month ago) we were out. We were not in the chase going into Chicago. So I decided after Chicago that's where my mind was going to stay – 'outside,' looking in.
    "That's how we're racing.
    "We'll take it as it comes.
     "It's certainly a dogfight…and there's a lot of racing left. Three races is a lot when you're talking about something like this."
    But Martin, like many in the sport, are thinking that too much is being made of the championship chase, and not enough about each race itself.
   "I understand the chase is a big deal…but last year when I raced (part-time) every time I went to the track it was about the race and the love for the sport," Martin points out. "For many people in this sport the race is a big deal too.
    "Points are points, and points are what they are.
    "Flat tires change points, and of course they change outcomes of races too.
     "All I'm saying is don't forget we are still racing every week. We're still racing. Let's talk about the excitement and the thrill of the events as well."

The Starting Lineup for Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway



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