NASCAR has made do without a Gordon, an Earnhardt and a Stewart at various times in its annual Chase for the Big Spittoon, so postseason star power isn't quite mandatory as far as the folks in Daytona Beach are concerned.
That said, it wouldn't hurt for Mike Helton and Co., to figure out a way to slip a few extra points into the cockpits of Mark Martin and Kyle Busch, to insure that both of them make the 10-race playoffs.
Nothing against Brian Vickers or
or Greg Biffle or any of the other left-turners on the Chase bubble. They're all top-shelf drivers and quality gents, Kenseth's periodic Eeyore imitations over the past several months notwithstanding.
Simply put, the 2009 Chase lineup would lack without Martin the elder and Busch the younger.
The Chase will include just one of them — Mark Martin, who when reseeded will be No. 1 with four wins. Kyle Busch missed out on the Chase by eight points.
Anyway, Martin and Busch don't automatically deserve to make the Chase just because they've won the most races — four apiece heading into Saturday night's Troubled Domestic Auto Manufacturer Rock & Roll 400 — but because of what they bring to the show.
Emphasis on "show." NASCAR is something close to equal parts competition and entertainment. It needs all the jazz it can muster as it battles the
and college football and baseball pennant races and English Premier League soccer for eyeballs and interest (OK, not so much English soccer, but you get the idea).
Martin is undergoing a career renaissance at age 50 and comes just short of stopping folks in the infield to tell them how much fun he's having.
Meanwhile, Busch, whose maturity hasn't caught up to his ability, is liable to do or say darn near anything, on and off the track.
How can you go wrong with a couple of guys like that getting airtime and face time during your playoff push?
Martin has been running NASCAR's premier series since the early days of the Reagan Administration, but his rookie year with Hendrick Motorsports has been remarkable. Four wins, six poles and routinely contending.
"This is beyond my wildest dreams," Martin reflected Friday night after his pole qualifying run. "I had hoped that we might win a race. And I hoped that I would drive a fast race car and have great camaraderie with great teammates in the No. 5 car and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. That's what I'd hoped for. This is far and away beyond my wildest dreams."
Martin has won as many races in 2009 as he did from 2000-08. He tied his career best for the number of poles, which he set in 1989.
The curious thing about Martin these days is that he toggles between the Happy Warrior and a guy on a therapist's couch.
"I tend to try not to shoot too high," Martin said. "I don't like falling short of my expectations. So, I might have had higher expectations if I weren't so afraid of that, but that's how I protect myself."
When Martin hooked up with Hendrick's primo team that included
, three-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson and
, he automatically had access to some of the sport's best equipment, people and engineering.
Suddenly, the man who is often labeled "the best driver never to have won a championship" was again a contender.
"The media's expectations for me this year were scary, frightening for me," Martin said. "I would have to say we've exceeded almost everyone's expectations, even from that. But it was a little frightening for me in January, reading what you guys were saying we might be able to do."
Busch, 24, never has backed away from expectations, or confrontation. He manages to antagonize at least as much as he succeeds.
There are the exaggerated bows to the crowd when he wins races. He went Pete Townsend and smashed a prize guitar after winning a Nationwide race in Nashville in June.
Busch's stated desire to win 200 races in his career — he meant in all three series — was viewed as not properly deferential by fans of
, who accumulated 200 Cup wins.
Busch spun Earnhardt late in the 2008 spring race at RIR, which got his car pelted with beer cans. He and Vickers have a running feud over driving styles.
He said once: "Whether it's one-
salutes or thumbs-up or whatever, it's all good."
Gotta figure out a way to get that into the playoffs.