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Martin drives his way to the front

Times Staff Writer

While the debate raged about whether Mark Martin was deprived of winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Martin kept his focus on the next race at California Speedway.

The 48-year-old veteran with the gray crew cut and deeply lined face qualified third for the Auto Club 500 at Fontana and finished fifth in Sunday’s race in his No. 01 Ginn Racing Chevrolet.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 28, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Stock car racing: A chart on Nextel Cup standings in Tuesday’s Sports section listed Jeff Nemechek in seventh place. The driver is Joe Nemechek.

The result: Martin is atop the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings for the first time since September 2002, and his two top-five finishes -- he was second at Daytona behind winner Kevin Harvick -- amount to the best start of Martin’s 25-year career.

That has suddenly raised a question about whether Martin, who planned to drive a limited schedule this year, might change his mind if he has another shot at winning the Cup championship that has eluded him.

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“As of right now, that is still what I am planning to do,” Martin said Monday, noting that he’s scheduled to drive the next two races at Las Vegas and Atlanta but then skip the season’s fifth race, at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.

“I guess if someone asked me that after Atlanta, then the answer could be different, but as of right now, my intention is to stick with our plan,” he said.

If Martin does skip Bristol, it will end his streak of starting 621 consecutive races, dating to Nov. 22, 1987.

The Arkansas native originally planned to drive 22 of the series’ 36 races this year, with rookie Regan Smith driving the rest, but Martin since has added the second race at Daytona in July to make it 23.

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Martin has won 35 Cup races and has been second in points four times in his career, most recently in 2002. Many consider him the best active driver to have never won the title.

“It’s nice to lead the points, but it’s even better to be competitive,” said Martin, who ended a 19-year relationship with Ford team owner Jack Roush to join Ginn this year.

Martin made last year’s Chase for the Cup -- the series’ late-season playoff to determine the title winner -- but finished ninth in points, and he hasn’t won a race since his victory at Kansas Speedway in October 2005.

And feeling the toll of the series’ long schedule, Martin, who had been talked out of retirement from the Cup series to run last season, was looking for a part-time gig.

He couldn’t reach terms with Roush, whose team is now Roush Fenway Racing. So Bobby Ginn -- a developer and resort operator who was overhauling the former MB2 Motorsports team to create Ginn Racing -- hired Martin and gave him the partial schedule he sought.

Martin also is helping Ginn’s developing drivers, including off-road motorcycle racer Ricky Carmichael, who wants a career in NASCAR.

“I’ve never been any more happy than I am right now,” Martin said. “We’ve shown that we had a chance to win in each of the first two races.”

At Daytona, he was leading Harvick by half a car length coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap. Then a multi-car crash developed just behind them.

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NASCAR typically throws a yellow flag when an accident unfolds, freezing the field. It appeared Martin would have won the sport’s most prestigious race for the first time if a caution period had been called.

But NASCAR let the pair keep racing under green, and Harvick nipped Martin at the line.

Martin took the high road after the race, saying he would accept NASCAR’s decision. Many fans weren’t as gracious and insisted Martin should have won.

“I wish I could fix it for them,” Martin said. “But I was glad to have had a shot at it.”

As the series heads to its third race, March 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Martin hopes to stay in the hunt.

He won the track’s inaugural race in 1998, and has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes there. But the 1.5-mile oval track underwent major changes in the off-season -- its corner banking was increased from 12 degrees to 20 -- so past results might provide little guidance.

Regardless, Martin says he’s confident of staying up front.

“All in all, we have potential to get up there and win a race,” Martin said. “I think we’ve shown that the last two weeks.”

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NASCAR on Monday fined three more Cup series crew chiefs $10,000 each for rules violations during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway this month.

Scott Miller, crew chief for Jeff Burton; Lee McCall, crew chief for Mike Bliss; and Randy Seals, crew chief for Kevin Lepage, were cited for unapproved rear-spring setups.

NASCAR already had suspended six crew members from three teams and issued fines totaling $250,000 for cheating violations during qualifying for the Daytona 500.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Race is on

NASCAR Nextel Cup standings after this season’s first two races:

*--* Pos. Driver Points 1. Mark Martin 335 2. Jeff Burton 330 3. Jeff Gordon 309 4. Kevin Harvick 307 5. David Ragan 270 6. Clint Bowyer 264 7. Jeff Nemechek 259 8. J.J. Yeley 251 9. Kyle Busch 239 10. David Stremme 236

*--*

* Next race: March 11, UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.


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