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Martin Has Reason to Be a Little Optimistic

Could this be the year that perennially pessimistic Mark Martin finally wins a NASCAR Cup championship? Four times a runner-up for the Winston Cup, and possibly the best stock car driver to never win the series title, Martin has twice this season come from nowhere to become a legitimate challenger for the Nextel Cup with three races remaining.

Martin first drove in the Cup series in 1981 and came within 26 points of edging Dale Earnhardt for the 1990 championship. He has won 34 Cup races, and Sunday in Phoenix will start his 600th Cup race.

Earlier this year, it was highly unlikely that the 45-year-old from Batesville, Ark., would be in the Chase for the Championship, one of 10 drivers battling for the $5 million winner’s prize over the last 10 races.

In the first race, the Daytona 500, he finished last, completing only seven laps. Six races before the 10-driver playoffs were to begin, Martin was mired in 15th place, 123 points behind the cutoff. He had lost an engine with two laps to go at Chicago and cut a tire on the last lap at Indianapolis. For all intents and purposes, he was out of it.

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But he responded with four top-five finishes in the last five races and moved into the hunt.

In the playoffs, Martin again got off to a slow start. After six races he lagged 224 points behind leader Kurt Busch, his Jack Roush teammate. He announced that he would retire from the rigors of a 36-race Cup season after 2005, joining Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte among the old guard phasing out.

Then, on Sunday at Atlanta, Martin drove one of the finest races of his career. He put the No. 6 Viagra Ford in front for 227 of the 325 laps and probably would have won if not for two late yellow flags that helped Jimmie Johnson steal the victory. The second-place finish, and Busch’s poor finish, moved Martin within 81 points of the lead.

Now it’s on to Phoenix, followed in a week by Darlington and the finale Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami.

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For one of the few times anyone can remember, Martin sounds mildly optimistic about his chances.

“We’ve run really well at Phoenix over the years, and it’s been a pretty strong track for us,” he said. Martin has won twice at the remaining three tracks and has 25 top-five finishes in 58 starts at the three.

Perhaps to help his cause, and perhaps for good luck, Martin will also drive in Saturday’s Busch Series race. In the four Cup races this season where he has also driven a Busch car, Martin has finished in the top five, including second-place finishes at Michigan, Dover and Atlanta.

GM Dropping Out

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General Motors, which has supplied engines to the Indy Racing League since its inception, announced Thursday that it would discontinue the program after next season. Since the day Honda and Toyota began building engines for IRL cars last year, there has been speculation that GM would drop out because of the added expense of competing with the Japanese manufacturers.

GM Racing Director Doug Duchardt said the decision was made because of declining television ratings, attendance that he called “flat or down,” and “aggressive spending” by Honda and Toyota.

Coming Soon

Southland racing fans will have a busy time next week with the National Hot Rod Assn.'s season-ending Auto Club Finals at Pomona and NASCAR’s Toyota All-Star Showdown, a national championship for short-track drivers, at Irwindale.

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The champions have been determined in NHRA’s three professional classes -- Tony Schumacher in top fuel, John Force a record 13th time in funny car, and Greg Anderson in pro stock -- but everyone wants to go out a winner, and Pomona is the last chance. Qualifying will start next Thursday and continue Friday and Saturday with final eliminations Sunday.

The Toyota All-Star Showdown will be run Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12-13. Because of television schedules, racing will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and 5 p.m. on Saturday. A Thursday practice, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., will be open to the public, free.

Southland Scene

After being rained out last week, Ventura Raceway will return to action Saturday night with its popular VRA sprints and senior sprints.... Barona Speedway Park in Ramona will hold its first U.S. Auto Club event, Ford Focus midgets, on its quarter-mile oval Saturday night.

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Super stocks and street stocks will headline the Saturday night show at Perris Auto Speedway.... Speedway motorcycle fans will get their last chance to watch their favorites this year in the annual Fall Classic at the Orange County Fairgrounds on Saturday night in Costa Mesa.

The Goodguys Fuel and Gas Finals, last event of the vintage drag racing series, will be run this weekend at Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield. More than 400 cars, featuring front-engined top-fuel dragsters, are entered in the nostalgic competition Saturday and Sunday.... The 25th All British Motorcycle Road Ride will begin at 10 a.m. at Hansen Dam Park in Sylmar.

Honored

Greg Pursley, who won NASCAR’s national Dodge Weekly Series championship driving a super late model Chevrolet at Irwindale Speedway, collected $170,000 at the awards banquet in Nashville. Russ Pursley, Greg’s father and crew chief, and car owner Dave Hays each received $5,000.

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Phil Hill, America’s first Formula One champion and three-time winner of the 24 Hours of LeMans, will be honored Thursday night with a tribute at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Details: (323) 964-6325.

The 2004 All-American team, selected by the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters, will be presented Jan. 15 at the 35th annual banquet in Pomona.

Passings

Racing mechanic John Martin Jr., better known as LJ, died in a surfing accident in Nassau, Bahamas, on Oct. 29. Martin, 30, of Irvine, was a member of the Super Aguri Fernandez Racing crew. His father, John Martin Sr., was a longtime Indy car driver. Services will be Monday at 11 a.m. at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, 3800 S. Fairview St., Santa Ana.

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This Week’s Races

NASCAR NEXTEL CUP

Checker Auto Parts 500

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* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 1 p.m.); Sunday, race (Ch. 4, 12:30 p.m.).

* Where: Phoenix International Raceway (tri-oval, 1 mile, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees banking in turns 3-4), Avondale, Ariz.

* Race distance: 500 miles, 500 laps.

* Last year: Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his slim championship hopes alive by winning the Checker Auto Parts 500, his second victory of 2003.

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* Next race: Mountain Dew 500, Nov. 14, Darlington, S.C.

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NASCAR Craftsman Trucks

Chevy Silverado 150

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* When: Today, race (Speed Channel, 2 p.m.).

* Where: Phoenix International Raceway (tri-oval, 1 mile, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees banking in turns 3-4), Avondale, Ariz.

* Race distance: 150 miles, 150 laps.

* Last year: Kevin Harvick held off Ted Musgrave and won the Silverado 150 for his second victory in 81 Busch starts.

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* Next race: Darlington 200, Nov. 12, Darlington, S.C.

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NASCAR BUSCH

Bashas’ Supermarkets 200

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* When: Thursday, qualifying; Saturday, race (Ch. 4, 12:30 p.m.).

* Where: Phoenix International Raceway (tri-oval, 1 mile, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees banking in turns 3-4), Avondale, Ariz.

* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.

* Last year: Bobby Hamilton Jr. won the rain-shortened Bashas’ Supermarkets 200, and Scott Riggs took the lead in the tight five-man points chase at Phoenix International Raceway.

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* Next race: South Carolina 200, Nov. 13, Darlington, S.C.

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CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES

Gran Premio Telmex Tecate

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* When: Today, qualifying, 12:15 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, noon; Sunday, race (Spike, 1 p.m.)

* Where: Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (road course, 2.786 miles, 17 turns), Mexico City.

* Race distance: 178.304 miles, 64 laps.

* Last year: Paul Tracy dominated the Mexican Grand Prix from the pole before a circuit-record crowd of 221,011 and moved closer to his first championship.

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