Mark Martin’s been through the pain too many times before.
Forgive him, then, for breathing the biggest sigh of relief after somehow surviving round one of NASCAR’s 10-race prizefight known as the Chase to the Championship. For after a picture-perfect race that left him a shoo-in for a season-high fifth victory, it seemed the stars were aligned for a devastating disappointment once again.
At first, there was the mystery debris caution with 23 laps to go that took a brilliant pit strategy and left it on the cusp of combustion. As usual per television broadcasts as of late, the debris was never shown to the fans and left to the viewer to “trust” NASCAR was making the right decision. So why did the scanners of several drivers blow up quicker than Kanye West’s career after the MTV Music Awards? Between the lines of the yellow-flag chatter ran a general theme amongst the garage: NASCAR couldn’t let this race run to its conclusion without an exciting finish.
It was a disappointing turn to a race that for Martin should have never been in doubt. Instead, NASCAR’s Charlie Brown was left with Lucy holding the football, left to try and kick it during the drama of a double-file restart. As the final laps ticked down, it turned out to be something he had to do not once but three times after the inevitable “Cautions breed cautions” theory came into play, drivers’ days ruined in the name of safety while the frontrunners battled tooth and nail. As the drama heightened with the No. 5’s disgust, it seemed like the perfect setup for a win that had played into Martin’s hands would suddenly blow up in his face – a scenario during a title run we’ve seen all too many times before.
There was the infamous penalty for an illegal carburetor spacer in 1990, a 46-point blow for a non-performance enhancing part during a time where most rules violations got little more than a slap on the wrist and a “please don’t do that again.” In the end, that proved the margin of error between Martin’s first Cup championship and Dale Earnhardt’s fourth.
There’s the long list of Talladega disasters, the restrictor-plate roulette wheel Martin never seems to survive to the point he’s begun to call it the “lotto.” A 30th-place finish in 2002 proved the difference in a title he lost to Tony Stewart by just 38 points. Three years later, it was de ja vu all over again as wreck within the first 20 laps left him a mangled mess while Stewart finished second – again. The end of that year saw Smoke, not Martin, holding a second title while his one-time mentor ended up missing the 106 points needed to make up the difference.
That sorry luck transfers itself to big races, too – along with the suspect NASCAR calls. There was the Daytona 500 in his grasp back in 2007 before a last lap wreck that would usually lead to a timely yellow never happened – much to the surprise of Martin. Expecting a caution instead of the checkered, the veteran backed off just enough for Harvick to beat him to the finish line by about the length of his front bumper.
But for whatever reason, this year has been different, the outcomes no longer guaranteed to have that bad ending attached. In June, Martin even won a race due to someone else running out of fuel, something I never expected to happen in my lifetime under any circumstances (and I’m only 28). After running out of gas in that race in August, the No. 5 fell back to the clutches of the Chase bubble and looked destined for a free fall to 13th. So that’s where the bad luck was buried, I thought, and everyone braced for the devastating consequences.
But Martin and the team rebounded for a runner-up finish at Bristol the following week, setting up a three-race charge that left them not just in the Chase but the points leader to boot. So understandably, hopes have been raised that this year would be the one that finally breaks the back of Martin’s horror story – which is why being hit with this unexpected chapter at New Hampshire was so perplexing. Mystery debris was made for a man like Martin; it just seemed natural it would lead to the start of his 2009 title demise.
That’s why it was such a head-scratcher that when those final 23 laps were complete, it was Martin – yes, Martin – celebrating not just a win but the expansion of his points lead to 35. Each double-file restart saw drivers take their shot – most notably human pinball Juan Pablo Montoya with less than three laps left – but the second the door seemed open, Martin had just enough to slam it shut.
“I have a lot of respect for Juan Montoya,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the 100,000 fans in the stands combined with millions at home that fully expected him to end up hard in the wall, rear-end first. “I still didn’t know for sure that he wouldn’t slip, because I know that he’s racing for his first oval-track win. But I knew he wouldn’t slip on purpose.”
So much so that he forced the No. 5 down to the inside of turn 1 as soon as he was cleared, a defensive maneuver in which we all held our breath for the seemingly inevitable contact to come. But much to the surprise of everyone, it was Montoya left backpedaling, refusing to use his bumper and instead letting Denny Hamlin blow by for second and letting a race-high 105 laps led go for naught.
“I’ll learn from it,” Montoya said in the media center, quickly backing off from a heated “he screwed me” comment about a man he usually seeks for advice instead of in anger. “He’s probably the guy that I respect the most here.”
“With two laps to go, I would have done the same thing.”
Martin making mincemeat of Montoya? That’s something no one quite expected, as well as a white-flag spin turned caution flag that even worked in Martin’s favor. With AJ Allmendinger stopped on the frontstretch, this time NASCAR finally did throw the caution coming out of turn 4. Of course, past experience left the No. 5 going at full song right up ‘til the checkered flag.
“Somebody came up there and ran into the back of me,” he said. “And of course I went back to accelerating. I knew the race was supposed to be over, but I’ve done lots of stupid stuff, and I didn’t want to lose this race.”
And somehow, he didn’t, this 50-year-old cheating destiny in rewriting the Hollywood ending that’s been in place for him for years. Stop yourself now and ask this question, whether you’re a Martin lover or hater: what were the odds you’d have believed any of this stuff would be happening to him five years ago? A Roush racer destined for a lifetime of consolation prizes, driving for Hendrick’s mortal enemy, I bet most fans wouldn’t have even put a dollar on this story even if the odds were 1 billion to one.
“Pinch me,” he said in victory lane, an improbable points lead now 35 over Jimmie Johnson. “I’m sure I’m dreaming.”
At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if we all are.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)