With Jeff Burton finally ending a 175-race winless streak at Dover last weekend, he became the ninth of 10 Chase drivers fighting for this year’s title to visit Victory Lane this season. The monkey finally off his back, the victory left only one man with a goose egg in the win column beside his name entering Kansas.
Is it a surprise to anyone that man was Mark Martin?
It’s not that Martin’s hasn’t been capable of taking his car to the front; he’s led 264 laps this season, a number good for 11th best on tour and more than fellow Chase contender and race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, those laps at the front haven’t occurred anywhere near a checkered flag, and it just seems appropriate that the man known around the circuit to be shouldered with more bad luck than Charlie Brown and Eeyore combined would be the only one of these special 10 to continue to be shut out. The luck this year in particular has been brutal for the No. 6 bunch, with at least two races in the first third of the season slipping from their grasp due to pit-road snafus and strategies with the best intentions and the worst results. It was that same sequence of poor luck and missed opportunities that sent the team into a summer tailspin through which Martin nearly missed the Chase.
Martin did slip into the field, however, although he could hardly be considered strong in the first two Chase races, snagging finishes of 11th and 14th to settle into sixth, 75 points out of the lead. This weekend, though, everything was supposed to be different. Kansas was simply dominated by Martin and the Roush bunch last year, a key ingredient that served to fuel a second-half surge in a futile attempt to win the title the veteran has long coveted. Just as last week was Burton’s time to shine, this appeared to be Martin’s make-or-break opportunity to establish himself in a championship battle that appears more than ever to have broken wide open.
So, with a golden opportunity to prove themselves lying before them, the No. 6 team had no choice but to follow the path long established over the past 19 years, unintentionally do everything in their power to shoot themselves in the foot at the worst possible time.
“Pat [Tryson] and the AAA team struggled this weekend with the handling,” said Martin after the race. “They made a little bit of progress [during the race], but we were still a little bit off.”
Oh, were they ever. The defending race champ started 19th, but fell as far back as 27th in the early going, needing a Lucky Dog near the race’s midpoint just to stay on the lead lap. Even a two-tire stop planned out by Pat Tryson shortly after getting that lap back did nothing to improve the car’s handling; briefly appearing in the top 10, the No. 6 car faded out of view, its problems hidden in the face of other Chasers going up and down like a roller coaster. As the race went on, with the problems of Chasers Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, Martin had faded out of plain view as quickly as the handling faded on his racecar.
Then, what would become the race’s final caution with 71 laps to go changed all that. Bringing Martin down pit road, Tryson had the fuel tank filled with every drop of gas – and as the race began having a green-flag look to it as the laps counted down, the team’s strategy changed drastically.
“(Pat) started nagging me with about 15 to go to save gas and I thought ‘Man, I should have been working on it a little bit before now,'” said Martin of his late-race strategy. “But he thought we were a half-lap short based on what he saw and I was in a position where I didn’t have to race real hard, so I was able to probably bank a lap or two [of extra fuel].”
And so it went. Running at the back end of the top 15, Martin took it easy, saved the fuel and saw his position rise in the closing laps as car after car around him dove to pit road. Slowly, the No. 6 rose into the top 10. Then, the top five. All of a sudden, the checkered flag fell – with Martin third, the first car to cross the finish line with the engine actually running. It was a finish derived in part from driver skill, in part from crew chief strategy, and in part from luck. Martin had come from out of nowhere to become the highest finishing Chase driver in the field, closing the gap between himself and Burton to 70 points while rising to third in the standings.
Externally, such movement didn’t phase Martin, long used to optimism turning around the next week and stabbing him in the back. Still, there’s no denying that luck, long the No. 6 car’s worst enemy, had actually taken a 180-degree turn and helped him get to the finish line on Sunday. In a Chase that appears more about avoiding disaster than ever before, that’s a huge ally to have in your corner. There’s no question that, despite that zero in the win column, Martin has to be taken seriously now; with others dropping like flies, he’s collecting the points he needs and hanging around. With one final chance at a title, this looks to be a Chase bid that’s not heading the Rusty Wallace direction, where the last 10 races turned into a celebration of a career more than a serious bid for the championship. No, the possibilities are real, and the desire to win is there.
Still, faced with the prospect of another title within his reach, Martin’s pessimistic state turned the post-race press conference into a series of denials. In the middle of his final opportunity, he knows exactly what’s at stake. Martin’s been there too many times, gone through “oh-so-close” and come out on the side of failure, not success; don’t forget, this is a man who’s been second in points four times in his career. Putting himself through the ringer at this stage of the game, imagining a dream come true, is simply not something he wants to deal with until he has to. So forgive him for not being quite so optimistic about his Chase chances.
“Based on my past experience, my expectation would be to wreck next week at Talladega,” was as much as Martin would say about the title. “But so far, I haven’t had a disaster, so let’s go see what happens.”
Taking a long walk far away from here,
I’ve had enough
I’ve had too much attention
So, next week Martin will travel to Alabama, and everyone will see what happens. It’s just that there’s a whole lot more at stake there than he’ll ever want you to believe.
Editor’s Note: Song lyrics contained within the article are from the independent rock band WELBILT