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Martin survives at Darlington

Michael Waltrip’s car catches fire as his engine blows during the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Waltrip’s car catches fire as his engine blows during the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Pete Iacobelli Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. – If Mark Martin keeps winning like this, even he might have to concede that he’s racing for a Sprint Cup championship.

The 50-year-old Martin won for the second time in the past four races, outlasting Jimmie Johnson in a wreck-filled show at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night.

“Once we got out front, man, it was just easy. The car was awesome,” Martin said.

Martin’s only other Darlington win was in 1993’s Southern 500.

Martin’s victory ended a long, hot day for NASCAR that began with the sobering news of Jeremy Mayfield’s failed drug test and indefinite suspension, which was announced about two hours before the start of the race.

The garage buzzed most of the afternoon about who was snagged by NASCAR’s beefed up testing system.

“There is no place for substance abuse in our sport,” NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.

It seems like there’s always a place for Martin, who considered driving away for good a few years ago but re-upped with Hendrick Motorsports for 2010 earlier this week.

On Friday, Martin was adamant the extra year wasn’t about seeking a title, simply manifesting the joy he feels these days each time he steps on the gas.

Martin’s doing it as well as he ever has.

“Hey, man, I’m loving it,” Martin said.

He ended a 97-race winless streak in Phoenix last month and proved there’s no age limit on mastering the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

Martin led the final 46 laps in his 37th career Sprint Cup victory.

Besides his two wins at Darlington in NASCAR’s top series, Martin has won a record eight Nationwide Series races at the track.

This time, Martin had to show as much patience as speed, handling a record 17 cautions on Darlington’s two-year-old pavement.

The wrecks surpassed the previous high of 15 set in Darlington’s spring race 14 years ago, and more than doubled the eight of last year after the track was freshly paved.

Johnson wrecked in qualifying and had to start 42nd. He made it all the way to Martin’s bumper before settling for second.

“This is one of the most difficult places we run,” said Tony Stewart, who finished third.

Ryan Newman, Stewart’s teammate, was fourth, followed by points leader Jeff Gordon.

Brad Keselowski, in seventh, gave Hendrick four cars in the top seven.

Gordon held on to his points lead, while Stewart took over second place from Kurt Busch. Johnson moved up two spots to fourth, and Martin moved to 11th with his victory – putting him in position to earn one of the 12 spots in the Chase for the championship.

One by one, the slick surface knocked out the top contenders.

Kyle Busch, the defending race champ and last week’s Richmond winner, saw his chance to repeat disappear when he slammed the wall on lap 274.

Busch lost the Nationwide race Friday night when a tire went flat while waiting for a green-white-checkered finish. This time, Busch drove his Toyota into the garage and did not return.

Not long after, Carl Edwards was tapped by teammate Greg Biffle, hit the wall and was hemmed in as the field moved around him. Edwards then was hit with a one-lap penalty after he drove right instead of left to make it into the pits.

Next came Biffle. Just like a year ago, he led the most laps (117) and looked to have the strongest car. While his 2008 race was ruined with a busted transmission, this time he hit the turn four wall and missed out on his third Darlington victory in the last five races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season-long struggles continued. He hoped to break his winless career at Darlington and finally break through for his first victory in 11 months. And he got as high as second early on, but pitting after the race’s 10th caution, one of his tires escaped the pit box and Earnhardt was sent to the back of the field.

Darlington also cost Clint Bowyer his string of 83 straight races running at the end. Bowyer and A.J. Allmendinger hit and Bowyer bounced off the outside wall before rolling across the track and crunching an inside wall.

Bowyer quickly got out of his mangled machine, was evaluated at the infield care center and released a short time later. Bowyer ended a race shy of Herman Beam’s feat of finishing 84 straight races from 1961-63.

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