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Mark Martin is in championship form again....so maybe 2009 is finally the year he gets it done


Southern 500 winner Mark Martin (L) gets congrats from teammate Jeff Gordon, as crew chief Alan Gustafson looks on (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Okay, let's start thinking about it for real – Mark Martin, NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
   Now we all know what he's going to say to that: 'Stop all that talk. I just want to have some fun this season.'
   But seriously, the performance that Martin put on here in Saturday night's Southern 500, when all his rivals were crashing and burning and acting at times like fools, was a championship performance.
    Mark Martin was a study in cool.
   Championship cool.
   Well, yes, it's only May, and it's a long, long time till November, but Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson are clicking. And they just have that championship attitude.
   And winning the championship, contending for it, is all about attitude.
   For years, after coming so close to a title so many times, Martin developed an almost depressive attitude about each season….which is why he decided to take some time off and run only a limited schedule.
   To put some life back in his life.
   But now he says he's been rejuvenated, and he's back in this thing full time, and he is really a changed man.
   You can see it in his grin.
   You can hear it in his talk.
   And you can see it on the track.
   Mark Martin calls it "my second childhood," and he's certainly having a ball.
   "We are having a blast, we really, really are," Martin was saying at well past midnight while celebrating his second win of the year, the 37th of his career, at legendary Darlington Raceway.
   "I am a different person now. I'm having a blast. I know we're going to be having fun this year.
   "And I have learned some really great lessons, especially in 2007 and 2008. I'm still growing up, still maturing.
   "I've learned that I can't expect results. It's great to have passion…but you can't let that overwhelm you.
  "I'm happy, because I'm having a blast. And I can't wait to get to Lowe's (the next two weekends), because that's my favorite race track, and I've got some fast race cars."
   But how did Martin survive the night, which was one of the wildest of the year.
    "I felt like I was driving on ice all night," Martin said. "My car was like 40 percent or 50 percent out of control. So I just tried to stay away from everybody.
   "Dick Trickle once told me something that irritated me – 'to finish first, first you must finish.' He told me that for a reason – I was a young driver, and knocking clips off the cars and wrecking. I've learned."
    Gustafson made what looked like a gambling call not to pit late, under yellow with about 50 to go, when most of the leaders did stop for gas and tires:
    "I actually thought more drivers would stay out. The way the race was going, tires didn't make that much of a difference, and track position was so important.
  "So I was surprised that more people didn't stay out too.
   "We were concerned about Tony (Stewart) when he made that quick run up to third."
   Stewart and Jeff Gordon both stopped for tires and were the fastest off pit road. But they couldn't make up track position.
   It was a great night for Hendrick's Chevy teams and for Joe Gibbs' newest, Joey Logano, who made a serious bid to win here, and could well have pulled off what would have been the biggest upset of the season. Logano not only led but led easily and handled challenges well, and handled traffic well….surprisingly well for a rookie.
   "Ups and downs," Logano said. "We started off the race too loose and going backwards.  We made little changes.
   "But everything we did was good, and we just kept working on it throughout the race. 
    "I was 'shoeing' it up as much as I could, trying to save the right-side as much as I could.
   "I learned a lot of things that will help me set up my car, and I found things in my race car that I didn't like. 
    "So I learned a lot; I was happy with that. 
    "We led a lot of laps, and I thought that was cool, leading Darlington. 
     "Coming into this place, I thought this was the one place I was going to run horribly.  I thought I was going to be worse than we were in Texas. 
    "So I was happy -- We qualified good, we ran top-10 all day, top-five for a while.  
    "It is so aero-dependent, though, and it showed when I was out front, because I was like 'See ya.'
    "The way I look at it, this is our first top-10.  Talladega doesn't mean nothing to me; that's a top-10, but it's Talladega. 
    "This is a hard-earned top-10. No luck played into it. 
     "And it's great for these guys, it's huge."
    However it was a ragged night for Ford men. For much of the night it looked like Greg Biffle was the man in control….but he wound up spinning and crashing, and he had to rally to finish eighth.
   Biffle's tangle with teammate Carl Edwards with 120 miles to go put Edwards behind the wall.
   "Greg just got into the back of me and got me in the wall," Edwards said. "It's too bad.  We've been fighting really hard all night, and had a really good car and were going to the front…but I guess that stuff happens.
   "Greg just got into my left-rear and put me in the fence. I've been trying to give all night and race cautiously…and we just got tangled up with him."
   Biffle said he wasn't sure just what happened there: "I'd have to look at the replay.  Maybe I bumped him, but I really don't think so. 
   "He cut down the hill.  He knew I was inside of him…and that happens.
    "I think just the air off my bumper got him loose.
    "It sure didn't feel like I touched him, but it's perfectly possible."
   Biffle himself had more trouble, which took him out of contention: "I don't know what happened.  I really don't know what happened.  The car just took off. 
    "I almost wrecked off turn two, and then it spun out down there by itself."

Jimmie Johnson (48) chasing Mark Martin down the stretch at Darlington Raceway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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