By Bruce Martin
August 24, 2009

SONOMA, Calif. -- As NASCAR Sprint Cup prepares for a rare weekend off, the drivers battling for the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the Championship have a chance to pause -- and feel anxious.

Mark Martin moved up to 10th on Saturday as the 50-year-old tries to fend off the challenges from drivers less than half his age, including Bristol-winner Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, who won two weeks ago at Michigan.

Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne dropped to the 11th and Matt Kenseth fell into the 12th and final spot in the standings, just ahead of the charging Busch, 34 points behind. In fact, the tight points race extends deeper into the standings, with 89 separating seventh-place Ryan Newman from 14th-place Vickers.

After witnessing so many years in which the lineup for the Chase was nearly complete weeks before the cutoff race at Richmond, the intensity coming down the stretch this season is a refreshing change.

Martin could have made it easy on himself had he knocked Busch out of the way in the closing laps at Bristol. But that's not how Martin races. Throughout his career, which now includes 1,000 starts in NASCAR's various divisions, Martin is the sport's version of Mr. Clean, and that was evident to the race winner.

"Mark Martin, what a class act," Busch said. "He deserved to win this race and I'm sorry he came home second. He raced me clean. It's fun when you're able to race around the guys that respect you and that you respect back. He wasn't the guy that I always looked up to when I was growing up as a kid, but since I've gotten here, he's been one of the closest drivers I've been able to spend time with -- him along with Jeff Burton."

Remember that Martin is driving the same No. 5 Chevrolet that Busch drove at Hendrick Motorsports before Dale Earnhardt, Jr. joined the team in 2007. But despite some verbal sparring with Junior, it's clear Busch doesn't hold a grudge against the rest of the Hendrick crew. And Martin didn't give him any reason to foster any bad feelings Saturday night.

"I didn't need to use the bumper [to nudge Busch out of the way]," Martin said. "Kyle gave me all the room in the world to make that pass, and I didn't make it. If somebody abused me enough to really, really irritate me, I might use that bumper. But Kyle gave me all the room in the world. He raced me like a good sport. When he's behind me, I will be comfortable that he will race me the same way that I raced him. I can't say how he might race someone else on the race track because they may have different history. But I feel really, really good at night when I go to bed. I have managed to win a race or two, and none of 'em did I have to pull something dirty."

Saturday night's battle exemplified the timeless quality of NASCAR -- when an elder statesman of the sport can race the young punk, and both can walk away feeling good about the outcome in the end.

Although Danica Patrick has yet to sign a new contract with Andretti Green Racing, her intention to stay in the IndyCar Series instead of jump to NASCAR is a wise decision.

Patrick revealed last Friday that with Michael Andretti taking full control of the race team she would work toward finalizing a new contract to stay as the driver of the No. 7. By remaining in IndyCar, Patrick can continue to be one of the biggest names in auto racing.

If she had switched to NASCAR, it would have been a bold gamble, consisting of a season or two in stock car's lower divisions before determining if she could be competitive in Sprint Cup. A season away from a top-tier racing series could have taken the Danica brand off the shelf.

But just as LeBron James was born to play basketball instead of hockey, Patrick is a much better fit in an IndyCar than a stock car. Her pending commitment is a relief for the IndyCar Series community, which now knows the one driver who brings attention to the series is staying put.

"We've been working since you guys first starting asking us that -- we wanted to make this happen for her to stay here," Andretti said. "There are a lot of things that you have to put together for that to happen and we are almost there. She had to look at her options, but this has gone very well."

Andretti indicated that he will run a four-car team next season, which includes Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh. Other possibilities include Firestone Indy Lights Series driver J.R. Hildebrand and Mario Moraes. "We have to have sponsors and all that," Andretti said. "We just don't have that yet."

It may have been a week since Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch got into each other's faces after the Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway, but it continued to be a hot topic at Bristol on Friday.

Vickers continued to voice his strong opinion on Busch although he probably needs to learn the rules of baseball before using a strikeout analogy.

"I'm not still mad about it," Vickers said. "Like I said after the race, definitely I put it in the memory bank for the next go around. I don't know if you want to call it 'strike-one' or 'strike-two,' but either way he's out of strikes."

Actually, it's three strikes and you're out -- not two -- but Vickers has made his point.

"I wasn't mad about it at the time, to be honest with you," Vickers said. "Like I said last week, in a lot of ways I feel sorry for him. I hate that he lives in such an angry place. To be so mad about something so small -- it must be miserable to live like that."

Vickers signed a contract extension last week to remain at Team Red Bull, and that should mean plenty of sparks flying between these two Toyota drivers.

"We were in the process of wrapping that up," Vickers said. "Winning races never hurts anything, but I think we came to a resolution prior to the race. The win was just a bonus."

At one point during the Formula One season, it appeared that England's Jenson Button would clinch the championship before the midway point of the season. But after teammate Rubens Barrichello won Sunday's European Grand Prix, Button's once seemingly insurmountable lead is down to 18 points heading to Sunday's race in Belgium.

"It is better to be consistent and not crash, but if you are consistent and get two points, it is not enough," said Button after his seventh-place finish. "I am going to go to Spa and be more aggressive, for sure. In every way, not just driving, but with the strategy and with the tires. It is where we have got to be because otherwise [the lead] is going to be slowly eaten away."

Barrichello's win was the 37-year-old's first in nearly five years and 100th by a Brazilian. His teammate, Button, won six of the first seven races. But a mistake in qualifying for Sunday's race left Button fifth on the grid and ultimately, stuck in traffic.

"This was the first time when we have had a strong car that I have not been able to get the most out of it," Button said. "That is the most frustrating thing. We have to turn that around."

If it hadn't been for a pit stop error, it may have been Lewis Hamilton in victory lane instead of Barrichello.

Hamilton had started on the pole, but made a second stop that caught his mechanics by surprise. He would go on to finish 2.3-seconds behind Barrichello.

"We win and we lose together," Hamilton said. "We have had a tremendous effort to get us here, so we cannot at all take second place for granted. We're disappointed that we didn't get the win as we have had extraordinary pace in the last three races and I still feel and believe it was a tremendous effort from everyone. These things happen, you know."

McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh said the team had changed their mind after Hamilton had already reached the pit lane entrance and was committed to coming in as previously instructed, causing confusion.

"It wasn't Lewis's fault at all," Whitmarsh said. "Lewis was scheduled to stop on lap 37. We were obviously fighting Rubens and probably Rubens was going to beat us whatever we did."

Will Power's season came to a sudden end earlier Saturday morning when the third driver for Team Penske suffered a broken back in a vicious crash.

Power broke two vertebrae -- the L-2 and L-4 of his lower back. Nelson Philippe had spun coming out of a blind hill in Turn 3A and came to a rest in the middle of the race course. With drivers unable to see over the crest of the hill, E.J. Viso drove past at speed but was able to avoid a direct hit, clipping the front of Philippe's car. Unfortunately for Power, he made a direct hit into the side of the car, turning it into a mangled heap.

Power was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital while Philippe was taken by ambulance. Philippe suffered a concussion and open fracture to his left foot requiring surgery. Power also suffered a concussion in the sudden-impact crash.

"He remembers the whole incident and from what I understand the flagmen were doing their job, but when you come over that hill there is not much time to react," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric. "It's unfortunate because we wanted him to end the season on a high note and we are working towards putting something together for him for next year. It doesn't help when he has to sit on the sidelines to keep that momentum going. That makes it a bit more difficult and tough for him."

According to Dr. Michael Olinger, Indy Racing League director of medical services, Power is in the process of being fitted for a custom back brace. Medical personnel expect Power to remain hospitalized for a few more days prior to being transported to Indianapolis, where he will undergo further examination by IndyCar Series orthopedic specialist Dr. Terry Trammell to determine the next course of treatment and recovery.

Philippe underwent surgery to have the foot fracture washed out and repaired. After further examination, it was found that Philippe also suffered a hairline fracture of his right fibula and he will be fitted with a brace. Philippe is expected to remain hospitalized at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for another night.

While this was a serious crash, the safety of the Dallara IndyCar chassis should be commended that both drivers were able to survive such a severe hit without more serious injuries.

"Get off your chair and go outside and look. That's an easy answer. That's one you can answer yourself. You've just got to look at this place. There's nowhere else you can go in the country and see a race track and facility like this where you can pack that many people around such a small race track. I mean this is an awesome site whether there's a person in the grandstands or not. It's just an awesome facility. For 160,000 people to be this close to the action like they are that's an answer that speaks for itself." -- Tony Stewart on why Bristol Motor Speedway remains a hot ticket in NASCAR.

"It's pretty impressive any way you look at it. Mark is just an extraordinary individual. He transcends the sport. He's just one of those guys who is so talented and so committed and there are just very few people that come along, ever, especially in this sport that are like Mark Martin and who are able to do what he's doing right now, and has been doing for a long time." -- Jeff Gordon on Mark Martin's 1,000th NASCAR start, including non-Sprint Cup races.

"I didn't know it was coming until last weekend. It was just not something that was really on the radar screen. In some ways it's an accomplishment but really to me it's what you did in those 1000 starts that really matters. It's not just the sheer number it's what happened in those starts that makes it special." -- Mark Martin on his 1,000th start.

While NASCAR Sprint Cup gets a weekend off, it's a return to the ovals for the IndyCar Series at Chicagoland Speedway for a Saturday night race. After a tremendously exciting race at Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 1, when IndyCar introduced changes to aerodynamic rules and a push-to-pass button that allows an additional burst of horsepower, it will be interesting to see if the Chicagoland race can match that excitement. And a trip to Chicago is always a highlight because it's a great city with plenty to do, including some great restaurants that make dieting practically impossible.

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