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, been injured, been happy (think Nov. 9, 1989 in Phoenix, seven days after his first career win), and been sad (think Feb. 26, 2001 in Rockingham, N.C., seven days after his good buddy Dale Earnhardt died). He started his first Cup race the day I celebrated my 10th birthday -- I'm now (gulp) 38 -- and he's raced through five presidential administrations. You get the point: The guy has been doing this for a very, very long time.

Out of all those starts, none has been quite like what he'll confront on Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the site of what very well may be -- hyperbole alert! -- the most important race of Martin's Hall of Fame career. Why will Sunday be so seminal for the 50-year-old? Because if Martin, who has been the 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. If not, Martin, the most hard-luck driver of any generation, will cement his reputation as the best driver alive to have never won a championship.

As I wrote in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Martinsville, the shortest track on the Cup circuit (.525-mile), always produces bumper-car style thumping and banging. It's hard to pass, which makes track position vital, and this is where Johnson might suffer. The one flaw Johnson's No. 48 team has revealed in the past two months is on pit road. The crew had issues during its pit stops in every Chase race, even the past two, which still ended with Johnson 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 past six races at Martinsville, which obviously makes JJ the favorite on Sunday. But if he slips up -- and trust me, this is a very real possibility -- then Martin should be poised to challenge for the checkers. Why? Because Hendrick Motorsports absolutely dominates this place. Since the fall of 2004, when the Hendrick Motorsports airplane tragically crashed en route to Martinsville, killing all 10 on board (including Rick Hendrick's son, brother, and two nieces), Hendrick has won eight of the 10 races at the short track. Think Martinsville means something to this organization?

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

In the spring race at the track, Martin started 31st after rain wiped out qualifying, because he was 31st in points at the time. By 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, and they all pretty much said the same thing: Martin is driving better now than at any other point in his career. It's hard to disagree.

I'm picking Martin to take the checkers and -- at least for a week -- to make the Chase interesting again. Remember: This championship is not over yet. We're only halfway to Homestead.

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