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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Don’t call him old-timer -- Martin now a true title contender

It’s not too often that somebody wins a race and everyone at the track is happy, even that driver’s competitors.

But it happened Saturday night at Phoenix.

Mark Martin, who came back on a mission this year in his return to full-time racing, earned his first win since 2005 and his 400th career top-10 finish.

After the race, the scene was reminiscent of (though smaller in scale than) the massive outpour of congratulations after Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the Daytona 500 in 1998. Martin’s former car owner Jack Roush came by to give thanks, as did an endless parade of the drivers he competes against each week.

People are making a big deal of Martin’s age, and that he’s just the fourth driver above that milestone to win a race, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. was about to turn 50 when he died, and he was still racing competitively for wins. The drivers who are truly talented can still keep up that level of success, and Martin is truly talented.

He is now 13th in points, just 9 points behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth. This is amazing, considering that a month ago, before Bristol, we were discussing whether Martin would still be in the top-35 in owner points after that Bristol race. Since then, he’s been the hottest driver in Cup -- his last four finishes are 6th, 7th, 6th and 1st – and shows no signs of stopping. If he can avoid the “big one” at Talladega, a track where he has won twice in the past, look for him to reach the top-12 next weekend.

The Cup championship has always eluded Martin, who has been the bridesmaid four times, and he has done an amazing job to overcome his terrible start to the season and get into Chase contention.

If he can manage to win the Cup, he is so respected by everyone in racing that it would likely be the most popular championship ever.

And one more thing … After great runs like he’s had this past month, I’m guessing Mark will give Rick Hendrick a big yes in response to the question of whether he’ll be back full-time next year. If Hendrick’s plans still are to move up Brad Keselowski, I can see Brad driving a third Stewart-Haas car for the short-term until Martin retires.

Best line of the week
This comes courtesy of Robby Gordon, who was having a rare solid run when he became the latest victim of Michael Waltrip. When asked what happened in the wreck, Robby said: “I’m looking forward to having a good driver in the 55 car next year.”

Comedy gold, I say. It ranks right up there with Clint Bowyer’s gem last year: “Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR. Period.”

Most curious was the lack of reaction to that line from the booth. Why didn’t DW defend his brother? Could it be even he recognizes that it’s time for Michael to step aside and let someone else get in that car?


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