Friday October 23rd, 2009

Mark Martin has started an astounding 753 races in his Cup career. He's started races when he's been sick, injured, happy (think: Nov. 9, 1989 in Phoenix, seven days after his first career win), and sad (think: Feb. 26, 2001 in Rockingham, N.C., seven days after his good buddy Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died). Martin started his first Cup race the day I celebrated my tenth birthday -- I'm now (gulp) 38 -- and he's raced during five different presidential administrations.

You get the point: The guy has been doing this for a very, very long time and faced many different circumstances.

But none are like what Martin will confront on Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the site of what very well may be -- hyperbole alert! -- the most important race of his Hall of Fame career.

Why will Sunday be so seminal for the 50-year-old? Because if Martin, who has finished runner-up in points more times (four) than any other driver in NASCAR history, is going to have a chance to catch Jimmie Johnson in the standings, it's imperative that he cut into Johnson's 90-point lead on Sunday. If not, Martin, the most hard-luck driver of any generation, will further cement his reputation as being the best driver alive to have never won a championship.

As I wrote in SI magazine this week, Martinsville, the shortest track on the Cup circuit (.525 miles), always produces bumper-car-style banging. It's hard to pass, which makes track position so vital. And this is where Johnson could suffer. The one weakness that the No. 48 team has shown over the past two months is their pit stops. They've had issues on pit road in every Chase race, even the last two, which both ended with Johnson's Lowe's Chevy in Victory Lane. But unlike the first five Chase tracks, it's extremely difficult to make up ground at Martinsville because the quarters are so tight.

Martin, better than anyone, knows that Johnson has won five of the last six races at Martinsville, which obviously makes JJ the favorite on Sunday. But if Johnson slips up -- and trust me, if you've been paying close attention to the 48's pit stops over the last month, you know that this is very real possibility --then Martin should be poised to challenge for the checkers. Why? Because Hendrick Motorsports absolutely dominates this place. Ever since that plane crashed in fog en route to Martinsville in the autumn of 2004, killing all ten on board (including Hendrick's son, brother, and two nieces), Hendrick has won eight of the ten races at the short track. Think Martinsville means a little bit to this organization?

So Martin, who's in his first year at Hendrick, will be in the best equipment of his career on Sunday: a spanking new car, chassis No.5-561. Crew chief Alan Gustafson, who this season has established himself as one of the best in the sport, and his crew have been working on it for weeks, and will incorporate all the latest Hendrick technology. If I was a betting man, I'd wager that this new No. 5 Chevy will be very, very fast.

In the spring race at the Martinsville, Martin started 31st (rain wiped out qualifying, and he was 31st in points at the time). But displaying his unmistakable smoothness through the turns, he impressively -- and patiently --weaved his way through the field to finish seventh.

I talked to several spotters last week at Charlotte about Martin, and they all pretty much said the same thing: he is driving better now than at any point of his career. It's hard to disagree. Which is why I'm picking him to take the checkers and -- at least for a week -- make the Chase interesting again.

Remember: This championship is not over yet. We're only halfway to Homestead.

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