NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- In Mark Martin's mind, it's about the race not about the Chase.
Shortly after winning Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan -- where the two cars in front of him ran out of fuel on the final lap -- Martin was asked how his third victory of the season affects his chances of making the Chase, after he moved up to eighth in the standings.
There are three months left before the Chase begins on Sept. 20, and Martin quickly pointed out the focus of the sport should be on individual races rather than constantly on the Chase.
"This whole sport has forgotten that it's about the race," Martin said. "I could do every race, and I went to every race for the race, not about a bunch of things you couldn't control, like flat tires, this and that -- just the race. I'm using that mental toughness that I was talking about to prevent worrying about scoring points, take away from the fun that I'm having.
"I wasn't going to let the points part of it be the disappointment. It was going to be a disappointment because we didn't reach our full potential today."
Spoken like a true racer.
When NASCAR decided to emphasize its playoff format with the Chase in 2004, it hoped to create a level of excitement and interest that would be similar to other professional team sports. The big difference, of course, is that those playoff formats include elimination rounds.
NASCAR got exactly what it wanted in 2004 before drivers and teams began to figure out how to best approach the Chase. That year, nearly half of the then 10-driver field was still in contention to win the title entering the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, before Kurt Busch prevailed. But since that season, the separation between the eventual champion and the other contenders seems to happen earlier and earlier each year . Meanwhile, the media hype of the Chase has made every race of the season (other than the premier event -- the Daytona 500), just another race.
To a 50-year-old driver such as Martin, it's always been about the individual race first. He's proud of being old school. He doesn't do burn-outs or doughnuts after winning a race; he doesn't park his car in front of the main grandstand and take a bow. He simply drives to victory lane with the satisfaction that comes with winning.
Martin does admit, however, that he wants to make the Chase. At the same time, he believes his focus should be on doing the best he can in every race, not focusing on points.
"Well, it will be an incredible honor to me to be in that Chase -- that's a big deal," Martin said. "Everybody should know that, for every reason, but for me personally, at a stage when I might have written myself off, or the competition might have written me off, to be able to do that is pretty cool. All you have to do is have 10 great races [in the Chase]. You don't have to be the strongest team or the fastest or anything else. You just have to have the 10 best races to pull it off."
And that's the way it should be. If more drivers thought about going out to win races rather than protecting their points it might add a little more spark to the NASCAR season.
At least Sunday's race at Michigan provided plenty of drama, because, with so many drivers gambling on fuel mileage, the outcome wasn't clear until Martin coasted across the start/finish line with the checkered flag waving.
This came after Jimmie Johnson took the lead when he passed Greg Biffle with six laps to go, but Johnson ran out of fuel as the white flag was waving to signal the final lap of the race. Biffle lost the lead when he ran out of fuel coming off the second turn on the last lap. Martin passed him for the lead in the third turn, but as Martin exited the fourth turn, he also ran out of fuel. Fortunately, he coasted to the checkered flag.
Martin did what he had to do to win the race. And if he continues to prove it's 'Nifty to be 50,' race victories will lead him into the Chase.
"The thing that pleases me more than the trophies is just that we've been fast," Martin said. "That's really important. When you're not fast, there's not a whole lot you can do. But when you are fast, if you keep doing that every week, sooner or later you get great results."
When General Motors announced last week it was scaling back its support in NASCAR, it shouldn't have been a big shock. In the wake of government intervention at the troubled automaker, there is going to be much more scrutiny over how the money is spent, especially after the last $30 billion bailout that came just before GM filed for bankruptcy.
And while NASCAR provides a marketing platform for GM and its Chevrolet brand, there has to be a balance between auto workers losing their jobs from plants being closed, and money going to millionaire NASCAR team owners.
Even after Mark Martin tied Kyle Busch by scoring his third victory of the season on Sunday, team owner Rick Hendrick admitted he is still searching for a sponsor for Martin's No. 5 car next season.
"We have got a lot of things in the works, and our sponsors are coming back, but we don't know to what extent," Hendrick said. "That's the question. As you go along with this economy, companies are taking longer to get their budgets in line. They're not a year out, or not even eight months [out] like they have been in the past.
Hendrick got the bad news about GM on Friday. JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was informed it would lose all factory support for its Nationwide Series team as GM cuts funding to all of its teams in that series and in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Also, Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was informed its Cup team was losing GM support.
"We'll try to do the best we can to cover the void that will create," Earnhardt said. "Chevrolet is going through some very challenging times. I had a true understanding that this would be coming down the pipe and they would have to make some adjustments. Every company, not only in this sport but particularly having a company of my own, I've had to make adjustments due to how the economy has turned. So it wouldn't be any different for anybody else.
"I've been a loyal supporter of Chevrolet for a very long time and will continue to be. They've been a great partner. There are some really, really good friendships there and I hope our relationship will remain strong as they try to rebound."
Hendrick is a successful car dealer, and with the largest, most impressive team in NASCAR, he will continue to find a way to distance his team from the competition. "I don't think it's going to change our relationship with Chevrolet much," Hendrick said. "I can say this. Chevrolet gave me my first chance. I was the youngest Chevrolet dealer, I was the youngest one to get a franchise in a little town of Bennettsville, South Carolina, and they've supported me ever since.
"Everybody in the world, in the economy, has had to tighten their belt, everybody. I don't care what kind of business you're in. NASCAR, the teams, we cut out testing. We've done everything we can to cut expenses.
Hendrick addressed the possibility of GM getting out of racing all together, but he believes that the automaker will continue to be involved in some form.
"I think they're going to be in racing, but it might not be what we've had," Hendrick said. "Everybody is going to have to take an adjustment. But that's no different than everything else I've been involved in. Until they tell me they're not going to race anymore, which I don't expect to hear at all, then you'll see a bowtie on the front of our cars."
NASCAR Chairman Brian France was at Michigan on Sunday morning, and addressed the economic issues facing the sport.
"Obviously, everything they're doing, every program is being affected and we're no different," France said. "We were hoping to have the most minimal of the impact with the decision to restructure their business, and the details aren't all out yet, but obviously, we are affected. I'm very confident they'll be in [NASCAR] for many, many years because it works well -- but obviously under different terms."
With General Motors and Dodge both suffering financial difficulty and bankruptcy, that leaves Ford and Toyota as the only manufacturers in the series that are not getting government aid. Could NASCAR be looking at more foreign automakers to join the sport?
Under NASCAR rules, only cars manufactured in the U.S. are eligible to compete. Toyota joined the truck series in 2004 and, in 2007, became the first foreign manufacturers to compete in NASCAR's elite Cup series in 50 years.
"We'll have our philosophical approach to that in terms of welcoming new companies in as we did with Toyota," France said. "It is under a very clear set of circumstances that the manufacturers come to NASCAR to compete. And that will not change."
After striking a deal between team owners Tony George and A.J. Foyt at Texas, IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay will move from Vision Racing to A.J. Foyt Enterprises, beginning with Sunday's Iowa Corn 250 at Iowa Speedway.
Hunter-Reay will take over the No. 14 ride for Foyt, whose regular driver, Vitor Meira, is recovering from fractures to the L-1 and L-2 vertebra suffered in a crash in the Indianapolis 500 on May 24. Hunter-Reay remains under contract with Vision Racing, but after his disappointing start to the season -- when the team was unprepared to run two cars in IndyCar -- Hunter-Reay, according to George, was better off focusing on the one-car effort for the remainder of the season to give his team a chance to regroup.
"We all feel Ryan will be able to contribute to their program and provide continuity for the rest of the season while they await Vitor's return," George said.
Meira is expected to return for the final race of the season in October, in which case Foyt will run two cars at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The 28-year-old Hunter-Reay is currently tenth in the IndyCar championship. Last year, in his first full season of IndyCar competition, Hunter-Reay won in the closing laps of the Camping World Grand Prix at the historic Watkins Glen race track. On a restart he passed Darren Manning, who finished second . That win made Hunter-Reay the only driver to have wins in CART, Champ Car and the IRL.
"I have always had the highest respect for both Tony George and A.J. Foyt, so when they asked me to drive the ABC Supply car while Vitor recovers, I was happy to accept," Hunter-Reay said. "Vitor is a friend and I know all of the drivers are wishing him a speedy recovery. I am really looking forward to this new partnership with A.J. Foyt Racing and I will do my absolute best to help deliver the results we are all hoping to achieve."
Add Target/Chip Ganassi Racing to the list of teams that may make an attempt to sign IndyCar star Danica Patrick at the end of this season. If that happens, it would be a three-car IndyCar Series team that would also include 2008 IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon and 2007 IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti.
This would be a great move for Patrick because it would keep her in IndyCar while also giving her the chance to drive in selected NASCAR events with Ganassi's stock car team. That way she could determine if she wants to make a full-time switch to NASCAR.
Patrick currently drives for Andretti Green Racing and is fifth in IndyCar Series points, 32 points behind the leader, Ryan Briscoe. She finished third in last months' Indianapolis 500, and despite no victories so far in 2009, she is having her best season.
Patrick has hired IMG to help her negotiate her next contract. IMG is now controlled by former NASCAR executive George Pyne and there are some members of the IndyCar Series staff who believe Pyne wants to take her to NASCAR.
Kevin Savoree co-owns Andretti Green Racing with Michael Andretti and Kim Green, and will be involved in negotiating a new contract with Patrick. But Savoree indicated the time to sit down and talk has not happened yet.
"It's really an open-ended question without really a right or wrong answer," Savoree said. "There are so many variables involved in it that it is hard to put a timetable to it. For us, it's focusing on racing and let that take care of it. When it's time to sit down, we will.
"She is a great race car driver; there is no question about that," Savoree said. "It didn't take Long Beach or Kansas or Indy or Milwaukee to prove anything to us. It's just a matter of right now all we care about is going racing and that is what we are going to do. When the right time is there to sit down and talk about the future, we will.
"I think the guy is just trying to direct a lot of people to his website or to his column and generate ad revenue for said website I suppose. I really don't see how that argument really is that relevant to anything, and I don't even know really what kind of problem he has or what kind of solution he wants. I don't really get into it. My fans will handle themselves; they're good people. We've got a lot of great fans that follow this sport and they're very loyal to us and we need them more now than ever, so I think anyone who would be calling them out and stirring them up is causing problems not only for himself but everyone else in this sport." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on Kyle Busch and his latest attempts to make disparaging comments about NASCAR's most popular driver.
"When the season started, I thought we needed to check Tony into a mental hospital (laughs) and ask him why he was trying to be a car owner. In today's world and the economy and all that's going on, he has so far exceeded expectations or hopes, and everybody managing that organization. They've done an awesome job." -- Jimmie Johnson on fellow driver Tony Stewart's decision to become an owner/driver in NASCAR. Jimmy Piersall was the former baseball player whose mental instability led to the famed book and motion picture "Fear Strikes Out."
"No, I never thought it would get that much attention. It certainly drew the ire of the fans. It is what it is. I thought it was a neat idea to share the guitar with the whole team. In the spirit of rock and roll -- smash it up, bang it up, whatever. It didn't quite go according to plan in breaking. Gibson makes an awfully strong guitar. I said I was going to buy two guitars after the race, but I didn't know it was going to be in the spirit of both of Sam Bass' personalities. We'll have to hopefully get both of those mounted up. Jason Ratcliff's (crew chief) in charge of the other one -- I don't know if it's been cut up yet or not. No, I don't regret it. I thought it was fun.... A lot of people hated it and I guess those are the ones with 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) tattooed on their arm. Or maybe still eights. I've got no issues with Junior -- it's his fans that are crazy, but that's all right." -- Kyle Busch on his latest controversy, when he smashed the guitar trophy after winning the Nationwide Series race at Nashville two weeks ago.
"Sounds to me like the most popular driver award goes to Kyle Busch this year, right?" -- Kyle Busch on how he has become the most talked about driver in NASCAR.
While NASCAR Sprint Cup heads off to the Sonoma Valley to prove that even stock car racers can become part of the wine and cheese crowd, IndyCar is off to Newton, Iowa for one of its more successful oval track events at Iowa Speedway. This is where the heartland of America turns out for the state's biggest sporting event outside of the Iowa-Iowa State college football game.
It's also a formula that works well for IndyCar as the series should focus on being the big fish in a small pond, rather than trying to go head-to-head with NASCAR on big oval tracks where it's too difficult to fill up all of the seats. But of course, IndyCar still has the Indianapolis 500, which remains the biggest auto race in the world every year.