When young drivers aren’t sure how to approach an on-track situation, they often ask themselves, “What would Mark Martin do?”
With a championship on the line, Martin fooled the competition and won.
The 50-year-old driver held off Juan Pablo Montoya on a three-lap sprint to the finish Sunday to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. After, Montoya accused Martin of holding him up at the start of the second lap.
“What he did, not cool at all,” Montoya radioed his crew. “I could have wrecked him.”
But Martin insisted the move, which clearly surprised Montoya, was within bounds.
“I fought for that race,” Martin said. “But I wouldn’t do anything (to win). I still won’t.”
Whether Martin did anything wrong at all will be debated by many, but it won’t change the record books: Martin won his Sprint Cup Series-best fifth race of the season and extended his lead in the standings to 35 points over runner-up Denny Hamlin and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
“Pinch me. I am sure I’m sleeping. I am sure I am dreaming,” Martin said.
Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson used mid-race pit strategy to get the No. 5 into contention. He didn’t bring Martin in for a pit stop under yellow that was outside their fuel window, knowing they’d get a chance to stop later in the race.
It put Martin out front at the end, in position to spoil what was shaping up to be a blockbuster day for Montoya.
Making his 100th career start on his 34th birthday, Montoya won the pole in record-breaking speed and led every practice session while setting the stage for his second career Sprint Cup Series victory.
Instead, he found himself slicing through the field at the end of the race. He went from fifth to second on a restart with 13 laps to go, and was on the inside of Martin on the restart with three laps to go.
They battled door-to-door for the first lap, and Martin finally slid in front of Montoya as they crossed the start-finish line. They ran bumper-to-bumper through the first turn, and Martin appeared to slow just a bit as they headed for Turn 2.
It caused Montoya to roll out of the gas – and lose considerable momentum – as Martin pulled away to a sizable lead.
“I didn’t expect that,” Montoya said. “I was expecting him to run pretty hard. He just ran very defensively, and I just got caught by surprise. I think if I would have been prepared I probably would have jumped to the outside.
“You’ve got to learn from it. I haven’t fought for enough wins.”
Although Montoya said Martin “stopped,” in front of him, Martin didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
“My first instinct to answer that question would be, ‘Yeah, I stopped – compared to how fast his car was going,’ ” Martin said. “I don’t think I stopped, stopped. Maybe it looked to him like I stopped based on how fast he had been.”
The race ended under caution when AJ Allmendinger spun on the frontstretch as the leaders began their final lap. NASCAR waited for Allmendinger to get his car off the track and was slow to throw the yellow flag because officials were hoping to let the finish play out.
Instead, Martin, Montoya and Hamlin closed quickly on Allmendinger’s disabled vehicle, making for a chaotic final moment that could have led to wrecked race cars.
Hamlin slipped past Montoya for second place as the three cars split Allmendinger on the way to the finish line.
Johnson finished fourth and was followed by Kyle Busch. Afterward, NASCAR said the left front of his car was too low in post-race inspection, and he could be penalized this week.
Cory McClenathan and Robert Hight shot up the playoff rankings by winning their first races of 2009 at the NHRA Carolinas Nationals at zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C.
McClenathan won Top Fuel with a pass of 3.857 seconds at 312.64 mph to beat rookie Shawn Langdon and take over first place in the Countdown to 1.
Mike Edwards won Pro Stock in 6.618 seconds at 209.39 mph to take over the top spot for the first time all season.
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