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Race Day: ‘The People’ Are Watching Martin

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 15 2009
Phoenix International Raceway: Very pretty, but how will the racing be today? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phoenix International Raceway: Very pretty, but how will the racing be today? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

There are still a few unknowns about the 2009 Sprint Cup season. Like, the name of the eventual champion – though that could become known today at Phoenix International Raceway.

But there is one thing that is locked down but good, and that would be the name of the person who is the people’s choice to win the Chase. That name would be Mark Martin.

Martin’s popularity is trans-generational. Old folks love him because he races what they perceive to be the correct way, and younger fans love him because, well, he races what they perceive to be the correct way.

If there is any place where Martin is more popular than in the grandstands, it might be in the garages. Drivers love Martin, well, same deal as fans.

Here is what a couple of those drives said this week when asked about Martin:

Jeff Gordon: I think that Mark Martin is a sentimental favorite, for sure.  I think that people, you know, I don’t think you find anybody that dislikes Mark. You know, it’s just everybody.  They like Mark.  So I think that that would be a positive to see that happen.”

Greg Biffle: “Yeah, I’ve been rooting for Mark Martin ever since it started, right after myself. So, I’m still rooting for Mark and I’m still rooting for myself to get fifth in points, or fourth. I think just out of the guys in the Chase, and how hard he’s worked  and what he’s done for our sport, I wouldn’t say anybody deserves it, but he certainly is just eligible as everybody else out of the whole mix.”

Where opinions hit a fork in the discussion is whether Martin, who is 73 points behind Jimmie Johnson in points prior to the start of today’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, will be able to make everybody happy the next two weeks.

Gordon: Mark making up 40-plus points per race is not completely out of the question.”

Johnson: “I feel that a 73-point lead is a very, very healthy lead.”

Martin: “If there are no problems and you have the two top-five performing teams, then there won’t be any major shift if nothing goes wrong, OK? There won’t be any major shift in our points unless things go wrong. You know, we turned upside down at Talladega.  Had I managed not to be involved in that wreck, you know, then the race would be on and it would be basically down to who scored the most points in the last two races, right down to performance.”

Fast facts

What: Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Where: Phoenix International Raceway; Avondale, Ariz.
When: Sunday, 3:15 p.m. ET
TV: ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 1-mile oval
Race distance: 312 laps/500 kilometers
Estimated pit window: 70-78 laps
Qualifying: Friday, 5:45 p.m. ET
2008 winner: Jimmie Johnson
2008 polesitter: Jimmie Johnson
Today’s polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.
Points leaders: 1. Jimmie Johnson, 6,297; 2. Mark Martin, 6,224; 3. Jeff Gordon, 6,185; 4. Kurt Busch, 6,126; 5. Tony Stewart, 6,119; 6. Juan Montoya, 6,061; 7. Greg Biffle, 6,050; 8. Denny Hamlin, 5,975; 9. Ryan Newman, 5,973; 10. Kasey Kahne, 5,898; 11. Carl Edwards, 5,857; 12. Brian Vickers, 5,777.

The setup

Only two races are left in the 2009 season as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads west to Phoenix International Raceway for the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

The standings are tight after Jimmie Johnson’s (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) accident on Lap 3 last Sunday that relegated him to a 38th-place finish. Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) were able to gain ground on Johnson by finishing fourth and 13th respectively. Martin is 73 points behind and Gordon is 112 points behind Johnson.

Catching Johnson is doable. The two largest comebacks to win the championship with two races to go happened in 1990 and 1992.

In 1990, Dale Earnhardt came back to win the title after being down 45 points with two races to go. Ironically, Earnhardt overtook Martin that season to win the championship.

In 1992, Alan Kulwicki set the series record for the largest comeback with two races to go. Kulwicki was third in the standings, 85 points down with two races left, and overtook Bill Elliott and Davey Allison to win the only championship of his career.

“I don’t know why everybody tries to cap this thing out and doesn’t just wait and watch,” Martin said. “There are still two races to go, and still things that can happen.”

Martin posted his second career win at Phoenix earlier this season after leading the most laps. Martin leads the series in top fives (10) and top 10s (16) at Phoenix. Gordon also has a win at the one-mile track.

Trivia time

Which drives won the first Cup race at Phoenix, the first Nationwide race and the first Camping World Truck Series Race? (Answers below)

Clinch scenarios

With two races left in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson leads the standings by 73 points over second-place Mark Martin and 112 points over third-place Jeff Gordon.

With the standings tight as the season comes to a close, everyone wants to know what Johnson has to do to clinch the title.

For Johnson to clinch at Phoenix International Raceway, he will need to lead by 195 points after the race. Currently up 73 points, he’ll need to gain 122 points by the race’s end. If he does that, he will clinch no matter what any other driver does.

For Johnson to clinch at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he will need to average a fourth-place finish over the final two races, or fifth and a lap led in each of the final two races, or sixth and the most laps led in each of the final two races. If he does that, he will clinch no matter what any other driver does.

If Johnson does win the title, he will make NASCAR history by becoming the first driver in 61 years of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition to win four consecutive championships. Chad Knaus also will become the first crew chief to win four consecutive titles.

Keep an eye on…

If you’re looking for “spoilers” outside the 12-driver Chase field at Phoenix, consider Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton (No. 31 CAT Financial Chevrolet).

Harvick has the best pre-race Driver Rating (99.0), Average Running Position (10.441) and Laps in the Top 15 (75.2%) ranking of drivers not in the Chase field.

In 13 starts at Phoenix, Harvick has posted two wins, three top fives and six top 10s.

Also keep an eye out for Harvick’s RCR teammate. Burton’s season hasn’t been up to his usual par, but this weekend he could post his first win of the season. Burton has made 20 starts at Phoenix, having posted two wins, five top fives and 11 top 10s.

One stat not in favor of the spoilers this week is that five of 12 Chase drivers (Jimmie Johnson (3), Mark Martin (2), Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch) have won at least once at Phoenix International Raceway.

Rookie outlook

With two races left, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings look like this: Joey Logano, 237 points; Scott Speed, 201 points; Max Papis, 140 points.

Thinking Daytona

As the season comes to an end, much focus is on will win the championship. But at the other end of the standings is another important battle. It’s the race to get into the top 35, which guarantees the teams a starting spot in the first five events of the 2010 season, including the Daytona 500.

Three teams are susceptible to falling out, or moving into, the top 35 with two races to go. The two teams trying to hold on to the bubble spots are Robby Gordon Motorsports and the No. 7 Robby Gordon-owned/driven Chevrolet which is 34th in the standings, 41 points ahead of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and the No. 34 Teresa Earnhardt-owned Chevrolet driven by John Andretti in 35th.

Team Red Bull Racing and the No. 83 Dietrich Mateschitz owned Toyota driven by Scott Speed is currently 36th — 117 points behind 35th.

Trivia answer

Alan Kulwicki won the first Cup race at PIR (1988), Jeff Gordon won the first Nationwide race (1999), and Mike Skinner won the first Camping World race (1995).

Up next

Homestead-Miami Speedway hosts the 10th and final race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — the Ford 400 — next Sunday, Nov. 22 (2:30 p.m. start on ABC).

Carl Edwards is the defending race winner. His win last year capped off a series-high nine wins in 2009.

Last year’s victory at Homestead-Miami was Edwards’ first time winning at the famed 1.5-mile track. It also was car owner Jack Roush’s series leading sixth win there.

Chase participant Greg Biffle leads all drivers with three wins at Homestead–Miami Speedway.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 15 2009
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Doobie says:

    It doesn’t matter…even if Martin was currently leading the points, NASCAR would find some way to screw him (again).