Monday July 13th, 2009

Five things we learned last weekend in Chicago:

1. Mark Martin is rolling. For the fourth time in the past 12 races, the 50-year-old Martin took the checkered flag. This has been one of the most dominant three-month stretches of Martin's career, which underscores the fact that even though he's the oldest fulltime driver in the series, he is still very much operating at the height of powers.

The victory pushed Martin from 13th to 11th in the standings. It also confirmed that he is clearly the driver to beat whenever the series stops at a flat track. After all, Martin has now won at Phoenix, Michigan and Chicago -- all flat tracks. This means he'll be the favorite to win at Kansas and Phoenix later this season in the Chase.

But will Martin make it in? He has a series-high four victories this season -- which is more wins, by the way, than Martin had driven to in 11 seasons -- but he's also had six finishes of 30th or worse. Most of these poor runs were due to bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because of them he's still in danger of missing the Chase. But most in the garage sense that Martin should be good for one or two more wins during the regular season, and that he'll glide into the Chase.

He should be fast on July 26th at Indy, the next race after a rare off-weekend. In his past four starts at the Brickyard, Martin hasn't finished lower than 11th. And remember: It's another flat track.

2. The Hendrick Motorsports dominance continues. With Martin's victory, Hendrick Motorsports has now won seven of the past 14 races. But if you throw in Tony Stewart's two wins -- Stewart uses Hendrick equipment -- Hendrick-powered cars have taken nine of the past 14 checkered flags. In other words, just like the past three seasons, every team in the garage is still chasing Hendrick.

Is there an organization out there that can find speed over the next seven races to catch Hendrick before the Chase starts? Well, it certainly doesn't look like it right now, especially given that the Hendrick teams have a history of peaking just as the Chase starts.

3. Still, Kasey Kahne is feeling confident. Kahne said something after the race on Saturday night that no one else had dared utter in the past three months: "We're as good as they are," he said in reference to Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne finished third on Saturday night, moving from 12th to eighth in the standings. His confidence mainly springs from the new Dodge engine he's been using for the past three months. Kahne feels -- and the results bear this out -- that he now has just as much power under the hood. And now that he's not at a mechanical disadvantage, Kahne doesn't see why he can't consistently beat the Hendrick boys. We'll see. But Kahne is one driver to keep an eye on over the next two months.

4. Stop the presses: Jimmie Johnson is wrapped up in a feud. No driver in the series is more adept at avoiding controversy than Johnson, the three-time defending champ. But late in the race on Saturday night he made contact with Kurt Busch, though it was clearly inadvertent. Well, Busch didn't see it that way and deliberately slammed into Johnson's Chevy. Said Busch afterward of Johnson and his on-track performance, "I'm not digging it."

This was the second time in recent weeks that Johnson and Busch have had issues with each other. The two bumped at Sonoma, and Busch blamed Johnson for ruining his day there as well. Busch is clearly peeved at Johnson, and Busch has a history of getting even with other drivers on the track. Will it come at Indy? Perhaps. Johnson would be wise to avoid being in the vicinity of Busch in the next few races.

5. Roush-Fenway is struggling. Not one of the five drivers in the Roush-Fenway stable finished in the top 13 on Saturday night. I still think Carl Edwards will come on in the next few weeks and win his first race of the season, but it sure looks like the gap between Roush and Hendrick is widening, not shrinking. Expect no team to work harder over this coming off-weekend than Roush. After all, this team is in danger of only sending one driver -- Edwards -- into the Chase.

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