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Wily Mark Martin has a little something extra at the finish for Juan Pablo Montoya, in a remarkably aggressive title chase opener

  Mark Martin (yellow) took the high groove, and Juan Pablo Montoya (red) took the low groove, and Martin wound up the winner of Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in front of an announced crowd of 101,000 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Now that was one heck of a race.
   And if the rest of NASCAR's championship chase races go like Sunday's opener, well, this could be a doozy of a fall run.
   Mark Martin, 50 but ageless, stretched his slim points lead in the Sprint Cup title run over his 11 challengers, with his fifth win of the season – and used his sometimes remarkably beguiling savvy to make it work – against Juan Pablo Montoya, who had a stronger, faster car all day, but who just didn't have track position at the end, and who then got outfoxed by the crafty Martin on the final restart.
   The race ended in some controversy and confusion. And then NASCAR officials said Kyle Busch's car (he rallied to finish fifth) was too low in post-race inspection, and further details could come Tuesday.
   Martin said he didn't really know who finished second. But Martin knew it was Montoya he was having to work to beat.
   "He had the fastest car…but I fought for that race," Martin said.
   Montoya complained, a little, about Martin's tactics at the end, slowing down in the corner, rather abruptly, and shaking up Montoya's rhythm.
   "Yes, I stopped. But 'stopping' is a strong word," Martin said. Then he added with a laugh "I 'stopped' compared to how fast he was running.
   "Once you get the lead, you've got to make sure you don't get it in there too hard and slide to the top of the track and lose the race. How stupid would that have looked?"
    Martin insisted he had morals in situations like that, and that he wouldn't rough someone up to win: "I still won't do what some of you might wish I would…"
   But, now Montoya, well, having morals in this line of work is sometimes relative.
   Montoya wasn't all that happy with some tricks Martin pulled in the final moments, but then he realizes this is part of the game, to keep your opponent off guard.
   Besides, considering where he was running with 30 laps to go, Montoya was rather pleased at fighting back into contention:
   "Us running 12th and being able to pick up 11 places or 10 places in 20 laps, well, I'm more than happy," Montoya said after finally cooling off. "I thought 'Man, I'm running 12th, and I see Kurt (Busch) and Denny (Hamlin) and Jimmie Johnson and Mark and Jeff Gordon all ahead of me, and I'm like 'This sucks.'
   "All of a sudden it's like 'Boom! Boom! Boom!  I had two good restarts. That's all it takes. 
    "We were very good on the restarts. 
     "And we're all-out here. No prisoners. We're not taking any prisoners."
   Yes, it was not only Montoya quite aggressive, but everyone. Still Montoya clearly had the best car in the field.
   "It was up and down, all kind of things," Montoya said. "The first 30 laps or 40 laps of a run we were the fastest car. Then it seemed to go away, and we just got really tight.
   "At the end we took four tires pretty late, and I thought 'Oh, not the right call.'
    "But I passed a ton of cars every restart…and I got to Mark."
   And that last restart, with three laps to go, Martin was crafty.
  "I thought I had him," Montoya said, using the inside lane to good advantage when Martin picked the outside lane. "I was running beside him…I think I'm losing power but I think I can get enough to the line. 
    "He cleared me coming out of four…and then when he went to one and two he just stopped on the bottom.
    "It's okay.  But I didn't expect that.  I was expecting him to run pretty hard. 
     "When that happens you've just got to go. You don't want to spin the guy out, but if he slows down like that, you maybe want to move the guy a little bit, and get the bumper inside.
       "He just ran very defensively, and I just got caught by surprise.
    "If I would have would have been prepared, I probably would have jumped to the outside.
      "He always runs very clean, so I was kind of surprised when he did that. 
     "I know it's the chase and everything….
     "Did I get screwed? Yeah, because I had Denny beside me the last three laps and Mark drove away."
       Hamlin finally got things going his way late in the day. "We didn't really have a race-winning car until probably 50 to go," Hamlin said. "I was like 'Man, if this thing goes green, we've got a shot at it.'
    "Then the caution came out, and I knew that wasn't going to be good for us, because I got killed every single restart.
    "So to come out second, when I should have been about fifth with those restarts, I was pretty proud of that."
   Most of the day it was Kurt Busch versus Juan Pablo Montoya, until Martin rallied late.
   Busch banged fenders with David Ragan on a pit stop, and that appeared to mess up the handling of his car a bit. Still it was a five-car race to the finish, and he was right in it.
   "It was a fight," Busch said (after finishing right behind his brother, who rallied from a dismal start to finish fifth). "We had a good car. We were a top-five car. You could have thrown a blanket over the five that finished up front. It just was a matter of which sequence came through.
    "What hurt us the most was the accident on pit road…but that put us on the right sequence (for gas and tires). So we were good after that (in strategy).
    "We just didn't make good adjustments at the end, and lost the handle.
    "Still, if there had been no debris cautions, we would have finished second."
    For Pat Tryson, who is leaving the team at the end of the season and who is being shut out of some of the team's discussions about 2010, thus raising caution flags about how well the team might do in the chase, the strong performance may well indicate that the controversy over his pending departure won't seriously affect the title run: "Overall it was a good run for us, a good way to start the chase off.
    "We're still in this thing in the big picture of things."

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