Sunday, September 20, 2009

Martin Stays Steady and Holds Off Montoya For The Win

Somebody needs to pinch Mark Martin to prove this year is truly happening. Entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the points leader, this weekend in New Hampshire Martin announced a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports and looked to maintain his quest for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship at the age of fifty.

Starting the day from the fourteenth spot, Martin and his Alan Gustafson-led pit crew looked to give the veteran driver his first ever victory at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and maintain their points lead at the end of the day. In twenty-five previous races at the Magic Mile, Martin had eight top-5s and thirteen top-10s and no wins, but that would all change Sunday afternoon as Martin was able to hold off an aggressive Juan Pablo Montoya to earn his fifth victory of the season.

Using pit strategy, Gustafson put his driver in contention for the lead under the seventh caution of the day. Battling with the No. 2 of Kurt Busch, Martin was able to take the lead for the first time on Lap 204. In command for the next thirty-eight laps, Martin kept the No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet out front after green flag stops cycled through. Despite numerous double-file restarts and hard charges from Denny Hamlin and Montoya, the veteran held his own and climbed from his car victorious, giving him a thirty-five point lead heading into the second race of the Chase next week in Dover, Delaware.

"Well it's pretty darn good," Martin said of his crew chief's strategy. "Alan won the race....this is a dream come true."

Earning his fifth victory of the year, Martin is showing that he has only gotten better with age. Having his best season since 1998 (where he earned 7 wins, 22 top-5s, 28 top-10s and finished second in the points), Martin shows no signs of slowing.

"This is just incredible," Martin went on to say with a smile. "Pinch me, I'm sure I'm sleeping. I'm sure I'm dreaming."

After months of points racing, Juan Pablo Montoya was determined to show his aggressive side and go for the win as the Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway Sunday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Starting from the pole, Montoya dominated much of the Sylvania 300 leading four times for a total of 105 laps.

Taking four tires late in the going, Montoya aggressively worked his way through the pack and back towards the front. As the laps clicked away, the No. 42 Chevrolet crept closer and closer to the front. With twelve laps remaining Montoya moved past Kurt Busch into the second spot and set his sights on Martin in the lead.

"At the end we took four tires pretty late," Montoya explained. "I thought, ooh, not the right call, pit 11, pit 12, and then we restarted at pit 9 or 10 or something like that. I passed a ton of cars every restart, like three or four cars every restart, and I got to Mark."

A late-race caution set up a double-file restart with just three laps remaining with Martin on the outside and an aggressive Montoya to his inside. A strong Denny Hamlin lined up in third with Martin's teammate Jimmie Johnson beside him. When the green flag flew the leaders charged into Turn 1 and battled it out for the win.

Racing side-by-side, Martin was able to get the advantage off Turn 4 with two laps to go. Charging to the inside of the No. 5 into Turn 1, Montoya went low for the lead, but Martin quickly shut the door as Hamlin made a move to the outside of Montoya for second. With the 11 and the 42 racing side-by-side for second Martin was able to drive away to the checkers. Hamlin was able to edge Montoya for second as the leaders scrambled to avoid the stalled car of A.J. Allmendinger on the frontstretch.

Happy with his performance, Montoya was not too pleased with the way Martin raced him on the final restart. One of the most aggressive drivers throughout the day, Montoya held back from hitting Martin, but explained that might not happen next time.

"Mark just screwed me down there," Montoya said after the race on pit road. "He stopped the car on the apex, like right on the bottom. I had nowhere to go. I could have pushed him out of the way how slow he would run, but I respect him a lot. Probably next time I will, I wouldn't wreck him, but I would bump him."

One of the cleanest drivers on the circuit, Martin's move was a definite surprise for Montoya. Instead of getting angry, the third-year driver explained he would learn from Martin's move.

"He always runs very clean, so I was kind of surprised when he did that," Montoya said in later post-race interviews. "I know it's the Chase and everything, but you just learn from it. I would have done the same thing. I think you've got to do it to somebody that you trust is not going to knock you out, because I think if I would have done ‑‑ if the second place guy wasn't me, I think somebody else would have been a little bit more aggressive. But you learn from it. It's one of those deals that you've got to do what it takes, and he did."

While he missed out on the win, Montoya earned his second third-place finish in the last three races and climbed seven spots in the Chase to fourth.

Also aggressive throughout the event, Denny Hamlin was able to take advantage of Martin's late-race block in Turn 1 to move to the outside of Montoya's No. 42. Battling side-by-side Hamlin got the advantage at the line and finished in the second spot.

"It was a solid run," Hamlin said. "You know, we didn't really have a race‑winning car until probably 50 to go after we came out there on the green flag pit stop and we were catching the 5 and the 2 really, really fast, a half second a lap, and I was like, man, if this thing goes green we've got a shot at it. The caution came out, and I knew that wasn't going to be good for us because it put us in the bottom lane. I got killed every single restart on the bottom lane, and I'd get stuck three wide in the first corner and then I'd have to battle my way back.

"To come out second when I should have been about fifth with those restarts, I was pretty proud of that."

His effort moved him to third in the points headed to Dover, tied with defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Both thirty-five points behind Martin, Johnson has one more win than Hamlin and thus the second spot. Johnson came home fourth, while non-Chaser Kyle Busch rounded out the top-5.

Most Chase drivers made it through the day with respectable finishes, but Kasey Kahne was not so lucky. An engine failure ended Kahne's day early on Lap 66, putting the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge 38th on the scoring pylon at the end of the day. Kahne dropped seven spots in the standing and is now twelfth, 161 points behind Martin.

Sunday's Sylvania 300 saw twenty lead changes amongst ten drivers and was slowed eleven times for a total of forty-eight laps. Next week the Chase heads to the one-mile Dover International Speedway.

Chase Standings After Loudon:
1. Mark Martin 5230 0
2. Jimmie Johnson 5195 -35
3. Denny Hamlin 5195 -35
4. Juan Pablo Montoya 5175 -55
5. Kurt Busch 5165 -65
6. Tony Stewart 5156 -74
7. Ryan Newman 5140 -79
8. Brian Vickers 5140 -90
9. Greg Biffle 5138 -92
10. Jeff Gordon 5128 -102
11. Carl Edwards 5117 -113
12. Kasey Kahne 5069 -161

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