Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene
MARTIN OUTLASTS AND OUTSMARTS THE COMPETITION TO WIN SOUTHERN 500
It was a fitting scene, down there in victory lane. A tough old cuss of a race track welcomed a tough-as-nails driver into victory lane But this isn’t about age. It’s about survival and smarts and a little bit of fortune.
Mark Martin led the final 46 laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, inheriting the lead when the 15th caution flag appeared for debris on the track. Although Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson made a valiant effort, closing to Martin’s bumper on several occasions, when the checkered flag finally flew, Martin won by 1.5 seconds.
Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon completed the top five.
“Man, I think we’re going to make it,” Martin told crew chief Alan Gustafson on the team’s radio as he worked his way around the track one final time.
Afterward, Martin, 50, looked as if he could run another 500 miles. Gustafson, though, had other ideas.
“I’m exhausted, man. I don’t know how Mark does it,” he said. “That’s definitely the toughest race I’ve ever won, one of the toughest races I can remember running.”
On a night when everyone – contenders and wannabes alike – had their share of troubles on the rugged 1.366-mile track, Martin and his No. 5 team persevered. Not that they didn’t have problems of their own. Running in the top 10 just past the 150-lap mark, Martin had a lengthy pit stop under caution when a lug nut fell off, and returned to the track deep in the field.
Gustafson admitted he was “afraid” to radio Martin afterward. Eventually, though, he said he simply admitted his team had let its driver down.
“I told Mark, “We did it to you, just bail us out.’ That’s really when I knew our car was pretty good,” he said, “because he came from … 25th or 24th to 10th quick. I said, ‘Wow, that was impressive.’
“He did, he bailed us out, got us right back up front. We’re going to make it up to him. I promise him that.”
There were other rallies – Johnson and Gordon each battled back from a lap down, Newman was ill – and others were simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. Darlington will do that to a team.
Martin drove an outstanding race in earning his second win of 2009 and the 37th of his career. But the move of the race clearly came from the pits.
Sixth when the yellow came out on lap 321, Martin watched as the top five cars of Martin Truex Jr., Stewart, Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano all headed to pit road. Johnson, Newman, Brad Keselowski and a handful of others followed Martin’s lead and stayed on the track.
“Just get a lead,” Martin was told over the radio, “and then we’ll pedal it.”
Gustafson said he thought more teams would stay on the track, that fresh tires weren’t the saving grace they often turn out to be late in a race.
“It seemed like everybody was better when they were up front and in the lead,” he said. “That was definitely an advantage.”
Johnson, the three-time defending series champion, didn’t disagree. By then, many in the crowd of 72,000 likely knew as much as well. Time after time they watched as the leader set sail while the cautions, and restarts, continued to pile up. Greg Biffle led 117 laps until he spun coming out of Turn 4 on lap 296 during a mad rush back to the front.
Truex Jr. led 61 laps, but said he had to pit with the others at the end to guarantee he’d make it on fuel.
Kasey Kahne led 45 circuits, only to have problems late in his Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge.
“I think there [were] probably 15, maybe 10, good cars at the end,” Johnson said. “However they came out from that final pit stop is how they were going to run.
“The track is just so narrow. With the new pavement, this car being bigger and boxier, there’s less racing room, the speeds are higher, and there’s no falloff in the tire. It’s all about track position. Fortunately we got it at the end. We had four or five things pop up through the night, from being trapped on pit road, spun out trying to get to my pit stall, just a bunch of stuff. It was a chaotic night.”
Fittingly, Martin made the biggest gain in points, moving from 15th to 11th. Gordon continues to lead, and holds a 29-point advantage over Stewart, who eased past Kurt Busch into second. Only 55 points separate the top three, while it’s 330 from Gordon to Carl Edwards in 12th.
Martin, who announced earlier in the week that he would return to the team full time in 2010, has six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts. Talk of a title shot, though, will have to wait. For now, Martin simply wants to enjoy the moment.
“I’m just very, very happy right now, and I don’t need to say we’re going to win a whole bunch more races this year,” he said. “We’re going to race just like we raced this race and all the other ones, and the ones we cross the line first, we’ll take the trophy.
“It could happen. But if not, at least we got two instead of one. That’s the way I look at it. … All I want to do is be happy and have fun doing this. If you don’t set yourself up for disappointment, then it’s much easier.
“It’s OK to have the passion. It’s OK to have the drive. But you can’t let it tear you apart, you know?”