Mark Martin isn’t shy about admitting that New Hampshire Motor Speedway isn’t a place that he enjoys.
As a driver who prefers to let it all hang out behind the wheel, the tight corners and long straightaways of the flat 1.058-mile oval don’t play into Martin’s strong suits.
“I like rounder racetracks where you can get a handful of steering wheel and slide that baby and manipulate it to make it do something that it doesn’t want to do,” said Martin, who earned his series-high fifth victory of the season Sunday in the Sylvania 300. “You really can’t do that here. It doesn’t lend itself [to that]. . . . I don’t know how to get around here.”
With the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead in hand going into the first event of the Chase for the Championship, Martin came to New Hampshire just hoping to not let the track beat him.
When it mattered most, Martin finally figured out the place that has so long puzzled him and in the process sent the message that he’s fully prepared to battle for his first Sprint Cup title.
Martin, at 50 the oldest driver to qualify for the Chase for the Championship since its inception in 2004, held on through three late restarts. Denny Hamlin was second and Juan Pablo Montoya third.
It was the first victory in 26 career Sprint Cup Series starts at the track for the Batesville, Ark., native who has finished second in the series standings four times in his 27-year career.
“This is dream come true,” said Martin, who came into the race with a 10-point lead in the standings and left with a 35-point lead over Jimmie Johnson (fourth) and Hamlin. “This is just incredible. Pinch me, I’m sure I’m sleeping, I’m sure I’m dreaming. This is my hardest place. It’s a tough place.”
And it was Martin, considered by his peers as one of the most gentlemanly drivers in the division, who had to get a little tough in the closing laps to hold off a charging Montoya.
Martin had the dominant car over the final half of the event and looked to be on cruise control with a 2.3-second lead before caution bunched the field up on Lap 275.
Montoya, the former Formula One driver in the Chase for the first time in his three-year career in the Sprint Cup Series, won the pole for the race and had the fastest car in practices all weekend. He was ninth for a restart on Lap 283, but by Lap 289 he was moving past Kurt Busch into second place. When the caution flew on Lap 294 for a spinning A.J. Allmendinger, it set up a side-by-side shootout between Montoya and Martin.
After going side-by-side for almost all of Lap 298, Martin pulled in front coming out of Turn 4. Going into Turn 1 on the next lap, it looked as if Montoya had found a lane under Martin, but Martin slowed in the corner to cut off Montoya’s momentum, allowing Hamlin to slip to second.
“Mark screwed me over there,” Montoya said. “He stopped the car on the apex, like right on the bottom. I have no idea. I could have pushed him out of the way . . . but I respect him a lot. Probably next time, I won’t wreck him, but I will bump him.”
Martin knew that slowing to block Montoya put him in a position to get moved out of the way by the Colombian driver.
“We’re all fighting hard. I tried to give him enough room, but do my race too,” Martin said. “With the way this racetrack is, that still isn’t enough. . . . It all comes down to how hard he was going to push it.
“I thought that he would do the right thing. If it didn’t turn out to be the right thing I think it would have been a mistake. It was not something that he was going to do to try to knock me out or out of the way to get the win and he could count on the same from me.
“That’s just my code. I’m criticized for that code and sometimes it’s overlooked that you get what you give.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* RK. DRIVER PTS. 1. Mark Martin 5,230 -- 2. J. Johnson 5,195 35 3. Denny Hamlin 5,195 35 4. J. Montoya 5,175 55 5. Kurt Busch 5,165 65 6. Tony Stewart 5,156 74 7. Ryan Newman 5,151 79 8. Brian Vickers 5,140 90 9. Greg Biffle 5,138 92 10. Jeff Gordon 5,128 102 11. Carl Edwards 5,117 113 12. Kasey Kahne 5,069 161 *--*
Race: Sunday, 10 a.m. PDT.
Where: Dover International Speedway.
TV: Channel 7.