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Remember that Vegas bet on Mark Martin for the title? Might want to add a couple more bucks to that pot

Mark Martin celebrating that $1 million Chicago victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   JOLIET, Ill.
   Hey, this Mark Martin season is for real!
   He was great in winning Phoenix.
   He was brilliant in outsmarting his rivals at Darlington.
   He played it oh, so cagey in beating Jeff Gordon at Michigan.
   And here Saturday night he was downright awesome – kicking butt most of the night, in a runaway….and then hanging on to trip up a frantic late rush by half a dozen angry challengers to win a two-lap shootout for his fourth Sprint Cup win of the season.
   Yes, that's right, Mark Martin, at 50, is making mincemeat of most of his rivals this season, not by slamming and banging his way through the pack, but by using his head and using crew chief Alan Gustafson's talents to such great advantage.
   Championship? Okay, okay, Mark Martin may well be the best driver on the tour today to have never won the title, and he's trying to ignore the title deal and just have some fun this season, which he realizes will be one of his final ones in a legendary career that began back in 1981.
   However Saturday night some of Martin's title rivals – including three-time champion Jimmie Johnson, so noticeably – simply lost their cool down the stretch.
   But not Martin. Once again he showed championship cool.
   Teammate Jeff Gordon had fresher tires than Martin for the final 30-mile run, because crew chief Steve Letarte, with Gordon only running ninth, gambled on pitting for rubber during a late caution. And for that final restart – double-file, shootout-style – it looked for a moment like Gordon had Martin's number.
   But Martin pulled a page from the restart notebook of Ron Hornaday – a man renowned for great restarts – and left Gordon in his dust at the green.
   "On that last restart, Mark went a little early…which he should have," Gordon conceded. "That is strategy that you have got to take in to account on the final restart.
   "It caught me a little off-guard, and I spun the tires."
   Then Gordon found his hands full battling Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart the final miles, as Martin slipped away. "Kasey was really strong on the outside," Gordon said. "He got to the outside of me, and I had to fight hard to get by him."
    Facing Jeff Gordon on fresher tires, and with a side-by-side restart, Martin had to pull something out of the hat to win this one.
   "I'm racing for my job," Martin insists. "I've told Rick he can set me down when the day comes I'm not getting the job done. So I feel the heat every day.
   "I feel good we're making the most of it.
   "That last restart: When you're running on cold tires, somebody could get to your outside and suck you around pretty bad. You saw that with Brian Vickers and some others. And Jimmie Johnson – though you might not have really seen that – was able to 'slip' me enough that I couldn't beat him. So the second time I wasn't going to let that happen….and I almost wiped us both out. I thought I had a handful of wheel, but I almost slipped and wiped us out.
   "And then facing Jeff Gordon on new tires….on my outside (for the restart)….I knew that was a risky move (the option to restart on the inside or outside was Martin's, and he gave Gordon the outside). But me restarting on the outside of him was also a risky move, because that wasn't my favorite place to be. So I'd rather put him in that vulnerable position…..
   "Man, I just don't remember all the things that happened late in the race. With 15 to go I thought we were going to win, if nothing else happened – but I knew it wouldn't go like that. And, gosh, it went a lot longer than I thought it was going to be, and a lot more eventful," Martin added with a laugh.
   After the race Jeff Gordon blew  up to Martin's door to wave in celebration. But Martin himself was startled: "I was thinking have I pulled off on the white flag again.
   "I can mess up anything. I couldn't believe we'd won. These things are so hard to win."
    "I didn't know that was the last lap," Gordon revealed. "I thought I had another lap to try to get Mark."
   And the championship?
   "Tonight, in my mind, I leave the track 13th," Martin insisted. "It's weird – but I'm not going to let myself get sucked into that.
   Now I may change my mind later, but this is just a rollercoaster, and I can't do anything more about how the points are falling.
   "We have had an horrendous number of disappointments. But for me to get four wins halfway-in is beyond my dreams.
   "I don't even know where we're going next… but I'm managing my head by thinking I need to lead the most laps and win every week.
   "I'm not worried about it (the title). We have done a whole lot of good."

   After the race, NASCAR officials said they would take Martin Truex Jr.'s car back to Charlotte for further inspection, because it's right-rear "was high in post-race inspection."  That could provide an handling advantage, or it could just be broken parts.

   The racing was so boring, to be honest, for much of the night, and Martin, the dominator, conceded that much.
   But the last 60 miles were furious. It began after a bump between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard triggered a big crash on lap 228 of the 267-lapper.
   "I'm not real sure, I'll have to see a replay," Menard said. "I got loose in one and two, got back on the gas, and I was on the outside (of Earnhardt). I was a little bit free on the restarts anyway, and I got shuffled to the outside trying to dig up top, and got real loose going into three.
    "Got loose again…and coming off four Junior and I just got together and the tire exploded. 
     "I think the tire was going down before that, and when we got together it probably just hooked it with his rear exhaust and blew it out."
   From there on, with double-file restarts and flaring tempers, the action became very intense.
   In particular were incidents between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin and between Johnson and Kurt Busch. And neither Hamlin nor Busch apologized.
    Johnson, who at one point appeared headed to victory, faded to eighth after those run-ins.
   "It was one of those days…." Johnson said. "I thought we had this thing won…and then on that restart it didn't work out so well for us."
  That's when Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers made a wild charge to the front, got Johnson out of shape, then got out of shape themselves, and gave the lead back to Martin.
    "We gave ourselves a chance," Hamlin said. "We got into Mark and Jimmie on that restart. Then Brian got a little loose under me and got us up the track. But that's part of it  -- That's double-file restarts for you right there, that's what the fans came to see. 
   "The guy on the inside is at the mercy of the guy on the outside.  You can only really run into the corner so hard.  We held Brian tight, and he got into us and knocked us up the track.
    "But that was double-file restarts, and we wouldn't have been in position to win if it wasn't for that.
    "It was definitely an exciting finish."
    "I saw the opening when those two guys got together, and I went," Martin said. "When I got in front of them that last time, I thought there ain't no way anybody is going to catch us."
   "Everybody was out of control," Johnson grumbled. "Body-slamming….That was some wild racing.
   "It's like a short track at 190 mph."
   NASCAR's new double-file restarts drew criticism from drivers: "It's great….but we're all getting more and more comfortable with it, and pretty soon we're going to have some big pile-ups," Johnson said.
   "Well, the double-file restarts are really here to mess up the best car," Martin himself pointed out. "And that is what makes it exciting for the fans. And it did, it messed us up."
    And what was that deal between Johnson and Kurt Busch? "I'm not really sure," Johnson said. "We were all racing off four; Jeff Gordon got inside of me, and I got loose, and we touched. And when we touched, he just came down and body-slammed me, like trying to get some room from me.
    "But it was just racing.
   "I don't know if it cost me the win, but he certainly body-slammed me pretty hard.
   "What was funny was he (Busch) was coming to hit me again, and then he saw Jeff on the apron (on the inside of the two), and I think he (Busch) realized I didn't run him up the track on purpose.
   "At the end of the race everybody's tempers are high. And he's one of those guys whose temper can get away from him."


Mark Martin: one of the classiest guys in NASCAR....and one of the hottest drivers this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

He needs to prep for

He needs to prep for Talladega starting now. I think he'll get in the Top 12 now after this win, and the wins thus far will likely put him in the Chase lead at the beginning, but he hates restrictor plate races and never seems to do well at them any longer. His average finish at Talledega the last 5 years is 32nd, and that average includes one Top 10 finish. The other 4 finishes were wrecks. Dodging the wreck is the main thing, so he will need to figure out a way to stay up front or will need to stay out back to avoid being in the big one. Until Martin clears the 'Dega hurdle, I can't mark him as the favorite. I still think that Stewart and Johnson hold that distinction.

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