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Mark Martin vs Juan Pablo Montoya, down the stretch? That's what I want to see at Sonoma

Give 'em hell, Mark (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   Mark Martin was once NASCAR's King of the Road Courses.
   Back when.
   But he hasn't been on one of these things in a couple of years.
   So what can NASCAR's hottest, smartest driver do in Sunday's Sonoma 350?
   Now wouldn't a win just take the cake?
   Martin is one of this season's great stories. Ageless, at 50, he's already won three Sprint Cup events, at Phoenix, Darlington and Michigan, in three quite different ways. He's finally got that consistency going for him, after bad luck in the opening weeks of the season.
   And he's looking just like a champion – smiling, confident, yet humble (as only Mark Martin can be)…and winning.
   The best driver in NASCAR never to have won the Cup championship might just well win that thing finally this season.
   But first Sonoma.
   This is a very technical course. Shifting, braking, entry points, exit points, limited passing spots, plus sometimes curious pit strategy (the ideal is to pit just the lap before the yellow comes out, so you'll have the lead on the ensuing restart).
   So, while the race itself may seem fairly short, on the clock, inside a driver's head it's a constant battle.
   "Road course racing has evolved over the years," Martin ponders. "These used to be some of the most fun races we did. 
   "But for me, the last six years or so that we ran them, they became much more of a challenge, because all the drivers are really good at it now, and all the teams put just as much emphasis on the road course races as they do every other race. 
    "Back in the day, teams didn't have the wherewithal to focus on road courses. It was a little less intense. 
    "This is a tough deal right now, with the competition like it is. And it's very, very difficult to pass, and we are very dependent on fuel mileage and track position. 
    "It wasn't at the top of my list to-do, but we definitely had fun (testing) at Road Atlanta. The car seemed good…and if we get it good here, then we'll do good.  If we don't, then we'll battle it to the end."
    Expectations this season? Martin has far exceeded those, of those following him, and of his own.
    However now, with such success, riding such a big wave, Martin worries that the theory of rising expectations may hit.
    "I'm very cautious about expectations," Martin says warily.  "I feel like a huge portion of my discontent and frustration over my career has been based on not meeting expectations. 
   "So I am 100 percent bound and determined to be happy. And this has been a great success this season, no matter what happens going forward.
    "I took this job (with Rick Hendrick full time this season) with hopes I might win a race…and that after we get one, then we'll worry about multiple. 
    "It's a dream come true to win three races before halfway, for anybody in this sport, I don't care who you are. 
    "For me, it's beyond that."
    Give a lot of credit to crew chief Alan Gustafson, still one of the most underrated team bosses in the sport.
    But it hasn't been easy for Martin and Gustafson: "We've had some horrendous bad luck…and we've also had some really good fortune,  enough to certainly take the sting away from the bad luck and disappointments," Martin says.
    Keeping a close eye on Martin, it's obvious that he is enjoying himself far more than perhaps at any other point in his long, outstanding career.
    And keeping 'fun' in the game is sometimes a crucial, if underestimated, element.
   So, how about a Mark Martin versus Juan Pablo Montoya finish to Sunday's 350?
   That would be a thriller. Two of the world's greatest road racers mano a mano….   
   "Seriously, that's such a great question -- because one of the reasons I wanted to stick around was because Juan Montoya was coming to NASCAR," Martin says. 
    "I wanted to be around to see that, and be a part of that, and be able to race with him….on an oval as well as a road course. 
    "It's obvious he shines everywhere he goes. But definitely he started out really shining here. (Montoya won here in 2007.)
     "He shines every day he straps in that thing.  What he has done is incredible: to come to this sport from the racing he came from, and to do what he's done, is pretty spectacular."

Mark Martin is a class act. I

Mark Martin is a class act. I believe the reason Rick Hendrick hired him, besides his ability to win, was to impress upon Dale Jr how you go about your life being a pro. Don't whine, just do your job, and be mindful of the folks who support you and the sport. It's great to see him clearly enjoying himself after so many years when he looked like he was carrying the worlds weight on his shoulders.

JPM has looked very controlled during practices and qualifying. Like he's taking care his equipment, not trying to set fast lap.

A five lap dice between these two would be great, but it looks like JPM might be more interested in points vis-a-vis the chase than a win.

points, points,

points, points, points.....you might be right about JPM...but this points thing -- like qualifying -- is something NASCAR needs to rethink. it stinks when drivers are more worried about points and not losing too many, rather than going for the win. NASCAR needs to remember that sports is all about winning. I still like the idea of the guy who wins the most races that year is the champion. I don't like strokers.

Aww come on Mike. We would be

Aww come on Mike. We would be talking about 6 time champion Jeff Gordon and Sr would only have 2 titles if we went by wins only since 1972--that's near blasphemy there saying that! Championship by wins is interesting but allow me to add that if you want exciting racing using wins only ,you MUST cut the schedule back to 26 races because there still is a "I have to get through this long ass season" mentality that just forces points racing and doesnt give the need for urgency. I agree the drivers stroke more than ever now and in my opinion it is the chase that has created this terrible mentality. I truly believe the rules changes the past 5 years could not have ruined the sport any worse than if they TRIED to do that.

don't think we can rewrite

don't think we can rewrite history that easily, because those guys played by the rules they had to win those titles, and if the title had gone to the guy with the most wins, then maybe they wouldn't have been so conservative......if earnhardt sr had been told the title goes to the guy with the most wins, he would have played a different game, don't you think. but you're right, this chase thing hasn't really worked that well. and you're right that a 38-race season is quite a grind -- so just imagine what's going to happen when Kansas gets that second Cup date....and maybe Vegas too.

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