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So Mark Martin takes the NASCAR tour lead into the first race of the playoffs

  Mark Martin: the sentimental pick for the championship....and very likely one of the men Jimmie Johnson will have to beat in the title chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Mark Martin, with four wins this season, will take the Sprint Cup tour lead into the first race of the 10-race NASCAR playoffs next weekend at Loudon, N.H., and Tony Stewart's big points lead at the end of the sport's 26-race regular season has been wiped out, with NASCAR zeroing the standings for the final 10 weeks of the season.
   "I feel like a whole new person, with a big weight off my shoulders," said Martin, who has never won the title, and who, at 50, is in the twilight of his career.
   But while Martin is racing against drivers who could be his sons, he is whipping them. No one has won more races this season than he has. And Martin has shown a remarkable consistency over the season, after a ragged start.
    Just how hungry is Martin for this title? "I don't know how to answer that," he said. "I didn't take this job to win a championship; I took it to drive a fast race car.
   "A title won't define my career.
   "For 19 years I tried to wheel my way in, I tried to will my way in, and it didn't work.
   "I'm just proud to be driving for this race team.
    "A lot of people questioned whether I'd win another race. I questioned it myself."
    So what to make of the upcoming chase?
   "I think you'll see what everyone has in the first two or three races of the chase, and then you'll go from there," Juan Pablo Montoya said, after making the playoffs, in a bit of history for the ex-Formula One star.
   There is little question that the man considered the favorite is Jimmie Johnson, who is going for his fourth straight championship, and who certainly looks in championship form, though he only finished 11th in Saturday's Chevy Rock&Roll 400, far behind winner Denny Hamlin.
    "Nobody has had a clear advantage, so I think it's anybody's championship now," Johnson insisted. 
    Matt Kenseth, who opened the year with back to back wins at Daytona and Los Angeles, came up 38 points short of making the chase, after finishing a very disappointing 25th, and even missing his pit stall once. "This is about how we ran the last four Richmond races," Kenseth said.  "We just haven't been competitive; really since California it's been a downhill slide for us. 
    "We've slowly fell back in the points every week. So I can't say I'm very surprised we didn't make it.
    "We need to figure out why because none of our cars really run the way they should.
     "We're missing something, in my opinion, with the organization --- Carl hasn't won a race all year, and he won nine of them last year. 
    "I think we need to really look hard at engineering. 
     "We've been inconsistent on pit road.  I've been inconsistent; I missed the pit box. 
     "We just need to evaluate the whole thing and try to get back to where it needs to be. The first year they had the chase we had five of us in there."
    Edwards, whose winless streak is one of the most unusual aspects of this season, says "We've got to buckle down and take the gift that is the
reconfiguration of the points and make the most of it."
   And Edwards refuses to accept the conventional wisdom that car owner Rick Hendrick has a lock on the title, with either Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart set to win, and with the Jack Roush teams off the pace much of the season.
   "You never know what's going to happen," Edwards says.  "You look at last season, the way Greg (Biffle) started the chase (with back to back wins at Loudon and Dover.  "Boy, if he could have kept that pace up, he would have been unbeatable…and I didn't plan on Greg Biffle being one of the guys to beat if you looked at the first 26 races. 
    "We haven't lit the world on fire. But -- trust me – in 10 races a lot can happen. And I've just got to bank on that."
   However Biffle isn't so sure that the Roush guys can find just what would be needed to hang with the Hendrick guys in the chase.
   "We don't have any wins, and we only have two wins as an organization this year, and they both came from Matt the first and second race of the year," Biffle points out. "So we know we're off a little bit.
    "We thought this front suspension package we tried here was going to be the deal, and it wasn't."
   It's the middle of September and the Roush men have tried a lot of things this season, but things don't seem to be getting much better. "We're not getting better, but I wouldn't say we’re getting worse," Biffle insisted. 
   On the other side of the picture, Kurt Busch, who finished second in the 400, appears to be getting stronger….though the news that crew chief Pat Tryson is leaving at the end of the season has put a damper on the team's title bid, and how that may affect team chemistry and enthusiasm remains to be seen.
   "We did what we needed to do tonight to make the chase," Busch said.
   "To see my little brother not make the chase, it hurts. I sat down beside my car and just pondered how much just eight points can mean in this sport. I won the title by eight points. And he missed the chase by eight points."
    For Kurt Busch this run was good for the spirit: "To be in contention to win like that at the end, and have great pit stops all night, it shows we're ready.
    "We've got some questions marks. But we'll sort it out when we get there.
     "It's a moral victory for the team; it gives us a shot at the championship – We're only 30 points behind.
     "It's a whole different game now."



  Mark Martin (5) leads the pack to the start of the Richmond 400, the final race of NASCAR's regular season. He finished fourth, and will be in the points lead for the first race of the championship chase. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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