NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Number 5 is Alive – Mark Martin Outwits & Outlasts Opponents in 2009 Lifelock 400 at Michigan

Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles is off from his Monday commentary the next few weeks. Bowles-Eye will return in its regular slot Monday, July 6th.

Ste-Pha-Nie… Number Five… is ALIVE!

Remember that from the 1986 movie, Short Circuit? It was about a robot that, after being struck by lightning, has an awakening and decides that he is not a singularly programmed machine with a single purpose, but one who becomes conscious, aware, and celebrates all that is good around him.

Following his third win of 2009, Mark Martin is similarly alive and well once again on the NASCAR tour, rejuvenated both physically and mentally after a couple of part-time years taken to focus on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After a couple of years to catch his breath, Martin’s currently on pace to equal his best season since some 11 years ago when he collected seven wins and finished runner-up in the standings in 1998.

This weekend, however, at Michigan International Speedway, another “short circuit” nearly prevented that third win of the season for Martin and the No. 5 Kellogg’s team. Although he was having to perpetually slap his own wrist (rather than slash them in frustration as in years past) to keep from running his Hendrick Chevrolet too hard in the closing laps to save fuel, another gremlin inside his car threatened to derail a third win in the last eight weeks long before Sunoco came into play.

“When our battery problems [cropped up,]” he said Sunday. “I started to… I just got sick to my stomach. ‘Oh great, here we go… another day….’”

Oh, ye of little faith.

In years past, the predictable would have happened to Martin. Jimmie Johnson would have won, while Greg Biffle coasted across the finish line in second and Martin’s car would have coughed coming out of turn 4, running out of gas crossing the finish line – on the white-flag lap.

Don’t think so? It happened to him here last June.

“My history is not good with these things,” he admitted in his post-race press conference, flashing back to a past filled with enough bad luck to last 10 lifetimes.

Car owner Rick Hendrick, seated next to him, needled him by quietly chiding, “You gotta quit that….”

But despite the last lap’s worth of good fortune this time around, it should be noted that Martin did not “luck” into his third victory this year, which, if you are keeping score at home, has already equaled his entire win total from 2001-2008.

It just seemed that way.

Just a few laps into the Lifelock 400, Martin radioed his crew saying the steering shaft was shaking and making noise, adding, “It gets really hard to steer when I’m sawing on it. Something is wrong with this car….”

I would assume that sensation to be less than confidence-inspiring when entering a corner at 205 mph. However, even then Martin was calm and, when explaining the issue at hand, showed no desperation or exasperation. In previous years, the response might have been a bit more explosive… or squeaky sounding. Instead, this season’s concerns are quickly replaced by the confidence of a driver and crew knowing they’re capable of fixing each other’s problems.

Yet while he made due with his steering maladies that had to feel like trying to wrestle the reins on an Amish hay cart, the next domino of disaster was about to fall. There was an issue with the charging system in his No. 5 Impala that was draining the primary battery, one that would cause Martin to toggle back and forth several times between the A and B circuit throughout the race. He’d run one battery down to about nine volts, then switch over to the next one while the previous battery recharged. The battery ballet meant that the fans to cool the rear end and tire beads had to be turned off – as did the majority of the driver cooling system.

As the batteries continued to lose voltage, Martin ran the majority of the second half of the race with just the helmet fan blowing hot air on him. Yet from the radio chatter, everything seemed at peace as he continued charging up from his 32nd starting spot to the cusp of the top five.

Then, a late race caution at precisely the wrong time raised the specter of another gas-mileage Gong Show at MIS for Martin. Following final pit stops, the call went out as soon as the cars returned to the track for the restart with 44 laps to go: start saving fuel.

Martin, up to second, had to act quickly to get himself in a position to win. Or, in this case, in a position to conserve fuel in the first place. “I started saving from the third lap, after I got my track position, and started trying to save,” he explained. “The car worked perfectly to save fuel today – I was in a position where I could; last week I couldn’t.”

“That caution was untimely again – second week in a row.” added crew chief Alan Gustafson. “We knew four laps before that window we couldn’t go. So, we saved as much gas as we could and backed up to the guys behind us.”

Using the newly instituted double-file restart to his advantage, Martin was able to get clear of traffic quick enough to put himself within striking distance of leader Biffle. Just a few years ago, the same scene played itself out at MIS, with Martin and Biffle dueling back and forth in their Roush Fords throughout the 2004 race, combining to lead 119 of 200 laps. In that one, Martin surrendered his lead due to a penalty for an alleged loose lugnut. This forced him to take two tires, while Biffle had four, eventually passing Martin for the victory.

Once again, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory had befallen Mark Martin at MIS.

This time, a different scenario presented itself as the roles were reversed, so to speak. Biffle was the leader in sight while crew chief Alan Gustafson was coaching his driver to run hard for 10 laps – then run easy the rest of the way to save enough fuel for an all-out assault at the end. Buoyed by years of disappointment and heartbreak due to poor fuel economy – and luck you would not wish on your worst enemy – that forced Martin to be a bit more cautious, even as teammate Johnson was inching up on him for second place. Always looking at the big picture, he was conscious of the points that had been squandered earlier in the year from good runs gone bad.

“I don’t know, Alan,” Martin said from the driver’s seat. “I want to keep myself in position, but I’m getting pressure from behind. I don’t want to run out.”

“We need points… bad.”

Let’s stop here for a moment, for this is where prudent drivers like Martin are sometimes criticized. To me, there’s a big difference between “points racing” and “racing for points.” Some may dismiss the former as “laying over” or “stroking it,” citing some romanticized notion of constantly going all out for the win regardless of the consequences. But when you are faced with the prospect of finishing 25th rather than third after entering the day 13th in points (one behind the 12th-place cutoff), it doesn’t take a mechanical engineer to deduce that fire-walling it when you’re three laps short on gas would be ill-advised.

As Mark pointed out afterwards, that forced conservatism may have been for the best. “If I had been in the top five in points, I would run out today,” he said. “Because I would have went after it.”

Meanwhile, just up pit road, teammates Johnson and Chad Knaus had a different plan. While they drove hard the first part of the run, Knaus gave Johnson a six-lap window in which to conserve fuel; then, he give the all clear to put the throttle to the stops and track down leader Biffle – who was told with about 20 laps to go, “We’re two laps short – there is no saving.”

While Johnson was trailing Biffle, Martin began to slip backwards – his lap times falling more than half-a-second a lap off of the leaders – and for good reason. “I’m running 2/3 throttle down the backstretch, and I’m not even touching it in the corners,” he radioed back to his crew.

That left his chances for victory on life support. Yet with less than two laps to go, Martin’s patience suddenly began to pay off. Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet slowed off turn 4, pulling down a lane, as Johnson violently wiggled it back and forth like Fernando Alonso doing his victory parade lap car-dance. There was no celebrating for the Lowe’s team, as Chad Knaus came on the radio, lamenting, “Damn it, this happens every single time….”

Back at the No. 5 camp, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel; and this time, to Martin’s surprise, it wasn’t an oncoming train. But while Gustafson was confident that his driver had saved enough gas, seeing the No. 48 go dry in front of them on the frontstretch was both disconcerting yet encouraging at the same time.

“Jimmie has about the exact same car we do,” he explained. “So we knew if Biffle was going that fast, he’d be in a similar position.”

Speaking of Biffle, there ahead was the No. 16 3M Ford about two seconds ahead of Martin. It was the proverbial carrot on a stick, placed in front of the burro who had be toiling steadily all day long in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Mich. Coming to the white flag, Martin decided it was go time. Like a scene from Days of Thunder – minus the inexplicably dirty face or impromptu gear changes – he went throttle-up, rocketing through turns 1 and 2 and gaining ground on Biffle at an astonishing rate.

“I was just lolligaging along… and I saw I had fuel pressure. I said, I’m gonna go for it.’ So I jumped in the gas, and ran hard, and I couldn’t believe how much I was gaining on him (Biffle) in the corner,” Martin said. “Then I got to the straightaway, and I was REALLY gaining on him. And then I was like, ‘WOAH! He’s out!’”

It happened in nearly the same exact place where Martin’s familiar No. 6 Valvoline Thunderbird gasped its last breath here way back in 1993, handing a win to Ricky Rudd. But there would be no empty fuel tank on this day; instead, it was Biffle’s Ford Fusion which fell silent as Martin’s No. 5 Chevrolet sailed past.

Seconds later, exiting turn 4, Martin’s car gurgled, coughed and sputtered, as that last charge on Biffle, the opening of the secondaries, and activating the accelerator pumps to feed all of that Hendrick horsepower sucked the fuel cell dry. Martin shut the car off, allowing it to coast around the 2-mile oval back to pit road. Even if the veteran was one to execute a tired and trite burnout, he wouldn’t have had the gas to do it anyway.

As Martin came down pit lane, he appeared to drive past Gatorade Victory Lane. That was understandable; he had not been here in a Cup car since 1998. However, the real reason was because his Chevy would not even crank over. The batteries which had been swapped back and forth all day finally would charge no more, and did not have the juice to spin the starter to turn the engine over.

For a driver who four years ago thought his best chances at winning were nearly behind him, the last four months have been sweet medicine for Martin. Gone is the temporal vein poised to burst at any moment, the teeth grinding and jaw-clenching, fretting over every single point won or lost. Instead, the pressure has been relieved through simply not allowing himself to become obsessed with lusting after a championship. It’s a commitment this year to preparing himself mentally – in addition to his 20 years of physical conditioning – which is what Martin feels is the biggest contribution he can bring to his team. We spoke at length about this together on Friday (look for the upcoming story this week), and the plan was put into action shortly thereafter.

“It’s funny, Vito, the things we talked about on Friday really showed today,” he said in the media center. “The mental toughness is important. I have a lot more of that obviously, which I put to use today – and this weekend, with the disappointment on Friday – as well as the highs on Saturday. Those are the things I can really, really do. My dedication to fitness and nutrition – I don’t really have a lot of other interests – I’m able to give them about everything I’ve got.”

Instead of succumbing to the temptation of obsession over a title, he’s racing each race as its own, not being consumed by the fire that nearly burned him up – and out – just a few short years ago.

“This whole sport has forgot… that it’s about the race. I can do and go to every race, and not be concerned about things that are out of my control; a flat tire or any of that, and just race the race – it’s about the race,” he said. “And it’s a lot of fun. I’m using that mental toughness to forget about worrying about scoring points and taking away from the fun that I’m having.”

It seems to be a formula that has worked pretty well so far this year. Three poles, and three wins have come to Martin this year… all won in differing fashions. Phoenix was pure speed; the fastest car won. Darlington was a combination of a fast car driving a teammate into submission, pit strategy, and managing equipment; there wasn’t so much as a Darlington stone-chip on the No. 5 car, let alone a stripe.

And now, this latest win at MIS was a combination of a fast car, fuel conservation, physical conditioning and self-discipline. When you have that combination on a weekly basis coupled with 35 years of racing experience, that makes for a pretty potent pairing, and one that is only going to get stronger as the relationship between Mark Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson continues to mature.

Number Five, is alive.

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