Starting on the front row this season had been a mixed bag for Mark Martin. At Bristol, he ran up front for most of the race and finished sixth. At Daytona, he got caught back in traffic and the rains prohibited him from moving up higher than 16th before the rains came and ended the festivities. And, at Atlanta, Martin blew a tire and spun out, eventually finishing 31st.
Saturday night was a different story all together.
Martin started out on Friday by winning his third pole of the season, the most for Martin since he had three in 1998. Martin then led all but one (under caution) of the first 103 laps of the race.
Martin was rarely far from the top of the class Saturday night and once in the lead, could pull away at will.
Martin was all set to win by multiple seconds when the caution came out with 11 laps to go for a crash involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in turn 3. This brought the leaders to pit road. Mark barely beat the very quick Kyle Busch off pit road, potentially setting up a nice duel to the finish.
Unfortunately, Busch was judged to have broken the speed limit whilst exiting pit road and was immediately sent to the back of the line. He eventually finished 17th.
Ryan Newman, who had been running 14th before the caution, pressed his luck and stayed out on 60+ lap old tires and had the lead on the restart with six laps to go. However, the old tires were no match for Martin’s fresh ones. Martin overhauled Newman on the outside in turn 1 and held off Tony Stewart to notch his first victory of the season.
For Martin, the win breaks a 97 start winless streak dating back to October, 2005 at Kansas. It is the 36th victory of his long career, but the first outside of Roush-Fenway Racing’s No. 6.
After the race, Martin was ecstatic with himself and his team.
“That was pretty awesome. Great, great race car. Great pit stops. Great strategy,” Martin said in the post-race press conference, clearly overjoyed with his victory. “This is very, very overwhelming to me.”
When asked about his clockwise cool down victory lap (Polish Victory Lap), Martin was quick with an explanation.
“I wasn’t going to do a burnout, but it was pretty incredible,” Martin said. “I actually had quite a bit of thoughts about Alan [Kulwicki, the late 1992 Winston Cup champion], you know, and where he might have been in front of me if he would have still been around tonight; what an incredible competitor he was.
Stewart, who came home in second, was relatively happy with his performance.
“Happy with it,” Stewart quickly said during the press conference. “Really proud of our organization, really proud of Darius Grubb and Jeff and all of our guys on our Old Spice Office Depot team.”
Denny Hamlin finished sixth, followed by Martin Truex, Jr. in a season-best seventh place after starting back in 24th. David Reutimann started and finished eighth in his No. 00 Aaron’s Toyota. Sam Hornish, Jr. brought home his No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge in the ninth spot for his first career Sprint Cup top 10 finish. Carl Edwards rounded out the top 10. Newman, who led at the final restart with six laps to go, finished 16th.
Point Standings (Top 12)
Jeff Gordon had a quirky night on Saturday. Handling woes early on dropped the team down the order until a move was taken to put themselves off-sequence from the leaders on pit strategy. This eventually put Gordon up to third when the leaders pitted under caution. However, Gordon had a serious tire rub that hurt him significantly, then a extra pit stop under green for a missed lug nut dropped Gordon down to a 25th place finish. Since he had a 162 point lead entering the race, he maintains the lead, but sees it nearly cut in half. Johnson, who was out to lunch, handling-wise early on, found the setup as the track changed. This helped the No. 48 eventually come home in fourth. The margin between the Hendrick teammates is now 85 points. Third place Kurt Busch also gained significant ground on Saturday and is now 98 points behind Gordon. Stewart, as result of his second place finish, gains a spot and moves into fourth. He is only six points behind Kurt Busch.
Hamlin is now fifth in the points after a steady sixth place run, followed by Clint Bowyer in sixth. Bowyer struggled with handling woes on Saturday night, eventually bring the No. 33 Cheerios Chevrolet home in the 26th position, one lap down. Kyle Busch maintained the seventh spot after finishing 17th, but was kicking himself for an error on pit road late in the race. The younger Busch was busted for speeding exiting the pits with less than ten laps to go. This sent the No. 18 to the end of the line and Busch could not make up any ground in the remaining laps. Edwards remains in eighth.
Reutimann is up two spots to ninth after an eighth place run, while Kasey Kahne remains in tenth after a near invisible run to 13th. Jeff Burton is up a spot to 11th in his No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet after a 15th place finish. Matt Kenseth is down three spots this week and rounds out the top 12. Kenseth, after qualifying in mid-pack, fell back through the field and finished 27th, one lap down.
Around the Cut-off
This week, no teams moved into, or out of the Top 35 as a result of performance at Phoenix. However, there was some shuffling of positions.
The only team just above the cut-off to gain any ground at Phoenix was the No. 20 team for Joe Gibbs Racing. Joey Logano entered the race in 35th, only 23 points ahead of the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet. For Phoenix, Logano qualified 31st and stayed around that position for much of the first half of the race. The No. 20 then gained some spots after the sun set and Joey eventually brought the car home in 21st place, one lap down. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is Logano’s first finish better than 30th since Las Vegas. This finish was good enough for the No. 20 to leap frog the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 and Robby Gordon’s No. 7 into the 33rd position in owners’ points. His cushion over the No. 71 team (still in 36th) is now 59 points.
As for the only team that had any real chance of moving into the Top 35 this week, TRG Motorsports welcomed a new sponsor, American Monster, to the fold. American Monster is a new TV show that will launch in the fall. This did not really help the team all that much on the track, although David Gilliland stuck on the lead lap for most of the race before eventually fading to a 33rd place finish, two laps down. This results in the team not really losing anything. Instead of being 23 points out of the Top 35, they’re now 26 out.