Matt Kenseth won at Bristol, but his teammate Mark Martin slipped to the brinkof losing his place in the Chase
Last Fridaymorning Mark Martin stood in the infield at Bristol Motor Speedway and squintedthrough the morning sun at the towering, empty grandstands surrounding thetrack. The following night, he knew, those stands would be filled with 160,000fans for the Sharpie 500, all of them anticipating the kind of action that hasmade this August evening in Tennessee's Thunder Valley the hottest ticket inthe sport.
Question: Why dothey hold NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway? Answer: Because chariot racesare illegal. This steeply banked .533 of a mile concrete oval reliably producesthe sort of angry wheel-to-wheel bumping and grinding--and occasionalhand-to-hand combat--that would give Ben Hur the vapors. "This place isright up at the top of the list as far as not having control of yourdestiny," said Martin. "You breathe a sigh of relief when you get outof here."
Few drivers havehad more experience at Bristol than the 47-year-old Martin, who is competing inhis 20th and--he promises--final full-time Cup season. Two nights before, hehad won the Craftsman Truck race at Bristol to become the first driver to winthere in the trucks, in the Busch Series (1996) and in the Cup Series ('93 and'98). Asked what the achievement signified, Martin replied, "That I'm old.I've been racing a long time."
He has. And,after four runner-up finishes in the Cup standings, Martin desperately cravesone more shot at a championship. He came into Bristol fourth in the points withthree races to go before the start of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But withjust 138 points separating Martin from 11th-place Kasey Kahne, Martin wasn'tthe only one dreading the bedlam at Bristol.
As a result,perhaps, Saturday night's race turned into an almost orderly, downright cordialaffair, as the contenders chose points racing over paint trading. "Veryrespectful" was how third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. described theaffair, a note of wonder in his voice.
Another reasonfor the largely unbristly Bristol was the confident drive of Martin's RoushRacing teammate Matt Kenseth, who made jousting for the checkered flag a mootpoint. Though his number 17 Ford was not the fastest car, Kenseth ran at ornear the front all night and, after passing Earnhardt to take the lead on Lap399, was in control over the final 50 miles. The victory was Kenseth's secondin a row and fourth of the season, and it moved the 2003 Cup champion to withinseven points of leader Jimmie Johnson, as both men clinched a spot in theChase.
For Martin thismost uncharacteristic of Bristol night races was marred by a mostuncharacteristic bit of self-made bad luck. On a pit stop on Lap 67, Martinrolled to a halt outside his pit box and drew a one-lap penalty, dropping himto 34th place. Struggling to make his way through the field, his race went frombad to worse on a subsequent restart, when Scott Wimmer slowed in front of himand Martin rammed him, damaging the nose of his car. Martin limped home 28thand dropped to 10th in the points, 90 ahead of Kahne.
Even amid thecelebration of Kenseth's victory, team owner Jack Roush, who has been withMartin for 18 years, seemed stricken when he said, "It will be one of thegreat disappointments of my life--not just my racing life--if we're not able tosee Mark compete for this championship."
There are stilltwo races to go before the Chase--neither, of course, at Bristol. But forMartin, squinting now into the setting sun of his Cup career, the postrace sighwas not one of relief.
• More NASCARanalysis from Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.
After qualifying for the Chase in 2004 and 2005,Jeremy Mayfield (right) has endured, as NASCAR folk might put it, one of themannus horribilis deals in 2006. After the first 21 races of the season, he hadonly four finishes in the top 20 and was mired in 34th place in the points.Released by Evernham Racing on Aug. 18, Mayfield, 37, says that he'll drive thenumber 36 Toyota for Bill Davis Racing in '07.... They are coming for you,Rickee Booby! First came the announcement that F/1 star Juan Pablo Montoya willbe racing in the Nextel Cup series in 2007. Now Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997world champion who left the Sauber BMW F/1 team last month, has indicated thathe will seek a berth on a Cup team. "These days, NASCAR is not a step downfrom F/1," Villeneuve told F1 Racing magazine.
Martin (inset, right) made history at Bristol, but his poor finish behindKenseth (17) cost him six spots in the points.