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Mark Martin Wins The Southern 500 At Darlington

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 10 2009
Race winner Mark Martin is paid a visit in victory lane by teammate Jeff Gordon after Saturday's Southern 500 in Darlington. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)  

Race-winner Mark Martin is paid a visit in victory lane by teammate Jeff Gordon after Saturday's Southern 500 in Darlington. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

Darlington, S.C. – The Sprint Cup Series’ oldest driver won on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway the old-fashioned way. The remarkable Mark Martin lurked at the front of the field all night at the Darlington oval while dodging a record 17 cautions. He took the victory from Hendrick Motorsports Chevy teammate Jimmie Johnson after leading the final 46 laps.

Johnson tried high and low over the final 21 laps of green before conceding, “We’ve got nothing for him.”

Martin, the third oldest winner in NASCAR’s senior-most series, had only one worry on this Saturday night romp. After moving to the front by skipping a late pit stop, he ran the final 71 laps on one tank of fuel.

“We didn’t suck any air so I guess we had enough,” said Martin. “I was really gassing it up alot when (Johnson) was on me.”

It was a night when drivers played hit and run with the SAFER Barriers often enough to bring out the record number of yellows and an equally impressive, if that’s the word, number of near misses. It was the night when the Darlington smudge replaced the Darlington stripe.

With new pavement that did not eat up tires, teams played cat and mouse all evening with pit strategy, including two-tire stops as well as Martin’s winning pit strategy. His Chevy was able to pull away from Johnson and the rest of the field despite two late cautions that bunched the field.

Johnson tried Martin high in Turns 3 and 4, then tried low two laps later with 19 laps remaining. He backed off to conserve tires before the soon-to-be-lapped Toyota of David Reutimann went high in Turn 4 as Martin went low with 10 to go. That broke Johnson’s momentum and a bid to come from the back to the front. After crashing in qualifying, Johnson started at the rear in a back-up car.

The Stewart Haas Racing team continued its remarkable first season. After dropping to eighth place following a decision to take on four tires while Martin and the other leaders stayed out, owner driver Tony Stewart scored his highest finish at Darlington in third with teammate Ryan Newman right behind in fourth.

I was just tickled to death tonight,” Stewart said.  ”That’s the best finish I’ve ever had at a Southern 500.  It’s a tough race, one of the toughest physically we run all year, obviously with the heat the way it was today.  Just proud of our guys.  Happy for Jimmie and Mark.  Mark is a great guy.  You love to see somebody that works as hard as he does have success.”

Since Jeff Gordon bounced back from a lap down to finish fifth, that gave Hendrick chassis and engines a sweep of the top five positions. Rookie Brad Keselowski backed up his victory at Talladega with a seventh place finish in a Hendrick-produced Chevy.

In all, it was night of might-have-beens as well as incredible recoveries.

Greg Biffle suffered from the Darlington rhapsody, leading 117 laps in his Roush Racing Ford before a spin in Turn 4 bent his fenders and ruined his night with 72 laps remaining. “It just took off,” he said. At one point, Biffle had led Stewart by eight seconds before the sixth yellow flew on lap 166. That’s when two-tire stops began, initially dropping Biffle out of the lead when he took four. After hitting the barriers, Biffle recovered to finish eighth.

Hamlin, who crashed when tapped by David Ragan, was emblematic of a tough night for points leaders. Others who ran afoul of the barriers included Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teammate Kyle Busch, who crashed on lap 273 due to a right front tire problem. Clint Bowyer dropped out of the Top 12 — in favor of the resurgent Martin — and ended his record of consecutive finishes with an accident on lap 221 in his Richard Childress Racing Chevy.

It was an oddball evening, one that began with two rookies crashing one another in Turn 1. Scott Speed’s Red Bull Team bought the ride of Joe Nemechek for its rookie of the year candidate after not qualifying. He promptly clouted Max Papis when veteran Johnson got loose in Turn 1.

But at the finish, rookies Keselowski and Joey Logano were in the Top Ten and an old guy was on top. “The car was awesome,” said Martin, who this week signed an extention to run a second full season with team owner Rick Hendrick next year. It was his second victory in four races and the 37th of his career.   

   

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 10 2009
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