Neither rain, nor Chevys, nor gloom of night could keep Mark Martin from the swift -- while he was running -- completion of his appointed rounds Saturday in the Stater Bros. 300-mile Busch series stock car race at California Speedway.
Turning back an early challenge by Tony Stewart and a late one by Kevin Harvick -- Nextel Cup drivers played most of the prominent roles -- Martin drove his Roush Racing Ford to a record-extending 46th Busch victory. That matched the age of the veteran driver, who has announced his retirement after this season.
“This was a throwback to the good old times,” said Martin, who led 102 of the 150 laps around the two-mile D-shaped track before a crowd estimated at 45,000. “I knew yesterday I had a great car. I didn’t know I’d win the race but I knew I had a great car.”
He needed it too. Pole sitter Stewart, winner of last week’s Busch race just before the Daytona 500, ran second in his Chevrolet, behind Martin, for most of the race. When Stewart backed off with a bad tire that eventually blew, forcing him into the wall, Harvick, who had a quiet race in the early going, picked up the challenge in the closing laps in his Chevrolet.
“Tony was really strong and Kevin was real strong in short bursts,” Martin said. “I was concerned about finishing the race at night, but this car didn’t seem to care.”
A record 43 caution laps kept Martin’s average speed to 117.251 mph, but they didn’t keep him from dominating the race.
“This is going to be a year of extraordinarily proud moments with Mark,” said car owner Jack Roush. “I can just feel it. What we saw tonight was what we saw in 1990: Mark at his best.”
Thanks to light rain, the race was divided into two parts. When puddles began collecting on the backstretch, after 129 laps, NASCAR stopped the proceedings, sending the cars to pit road to wait out the wet spell.
Martin took advantage of the half-hour break to have a snack.
“I’m an eating machine,” he said. “I have to have something to eat about every three hours.”
Twilight had become full dark before the race was resumed, Harvick tucking his car under the rear bumper of Martin’s as the green flag fell on the restart. Hardly had that happened, though, when Tracy Hines lost control of his Dodge and hit the wall, bringing out the yellow flag again. And when that little mess had been cleaned up, Martin Truex Jr., the defending series champion, spun into the wall when his Chevy threw a tire casing.
Finally, with seven laps left, they got to finish the race. Again, Harvick tucked up behind Martin on the restart, and again, Martin held him off.
“I shoved the nose a bit on the restart but then he got away,” Harvick said. “I just couldn’t get there.”
Harvick’s second-place finish did boost him to first place in the standings, although that figures to be a temporary situation, since he’ll be driving only selected Busch events this season.
Shane Hmiel finished third in a Chevy after driving all the way from last place. He qualified the car fifth but between then and the race start, the battery died. Under NASCAR’s new rules, no work may be done on cars between qualifying and race time, so the battery had to be replaced during the parade laps, and when that was done, Hmiel was relegated to the rear of the field.
“I guess I left the master switch on,” Hmiel said of the dead battery.
Clint Bowyer was fourth in a Chevy, rookie Reed Sorenson fifth in a Dodge.