On the morning before the race upon which his entire season would be riding, Mark Martin took a seat in his motor home in the infield at Phoenix International Raceway and flipped open his laptop. As he read one story after another saying he was on the verge of finishing second in the Cup standings for a record fifth time, the 50-year-old Martin, NASCAR's ultimate hard-luck case, was consumed by one thought: I've never been so happy.
"When I left the sport three years ago, I was just a miserable person," Martin says. "But then I broke away from NASCAR, assessed what's important, and when I came back in 2008 I had balance. This sport isn't about winning trophies; it's about people, relationships. And I can honestly say 2009 has been the best year of my life. If I wind up finishing second, I'll be content with that."
It appears he'll have to be. Martin went into Sunday's race only 73 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, having taken a whopping 107-point chunk out of Johnson's margin the week before at Texas, when the three-time defending champion crashed on the third lap and finished 38th. If he could stay ahead of Johnson at Phoenix, Martin could put himself within striking distance going into the season finale this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Johnson gave him no chance.
Showing the resiliency that wins titles, Johnson and the 48 team delivered a crushing performance in leading 238 of the 312 laps and winning his fourth race of the Chase. Martin finished fourth and now trails Johnson by 108 points. To sew up his record fourth straight Cup, all Johnson has to do at Homestead is finish 25th or better—even if Martin leads the most laps and wins the race. Considering that Johnson has a career average finish of 13.6 in eight races at the track, the Chase is essentially over.
November 23, 2009
Still, Johnson appreciates how remarkable Martin's challenge has been. "Mark is obviously still at the top of his game," says Johnson. "There's not a single person in this sport that doesn't respect him and, in a way, doesn't root for him."
Indeed, Martin's run was the feel-good story of the season. After driving part time for the past two years, Martin was lured out of semiretirement by owner Rick Hendrick, who promised Martin the best equipment money can buy. Martin responded by winning five races, his highest season total since 1998. But Martin and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, also had nine finishes out of the top 20 and, as a result, had to sweat making the Chase. That was a big factor in why they couldn't catch Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, in the 10-race playoffs.
"To beat Jimmie and Chad you have to get off to a fast start in the season, build up a points cushion and then start testing things setup-wise that you can apply to the tracks in the Chase," says Gustafson. "That's what they do, but we were fighting just to make it in and couldn't develop things for the Chase. Hopefully that won't happen next year."
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On the Cusp
Denny Hamlin's third-place finish at Phoenix on Sunday was his third top three in the last four races. Eighth in the standings with one race to go, Hamlin (below) is the one driver who has consistently matched the speed of Jimmie Johnson during the Chase—that is, when Hamlin has been on the track. He has three DNFs in the Chase, the most among the playoff drivers. Two engine failures and a crash at Fontana doomed his title chances, but 2010 could be the year Hamlin puts it all together. He runs well at the Chase tracks (like Johnson), and he'll be entering his fourth full season on the Cup circuit, which is when three of the last four champions (Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch) won their first titles.