Mark Martin celebrates a win in February at Rockingham with son, Matt, 8.
CHUCK BURTON / Associated Press Enlarge
In the days leading up to the last race of NASCAR's championship qualifying cutoff, its top racing curmudgeon was an anguish-wracked, sleep-deprived mess.
Mark Martin, arguably the best stock car racer never to win NASCAR's top title, was in danger of being left out of this year's chase if luck wasn't with him in the Chevrolet 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
But then Martin did what he does as well as anyone - saved his car, and his chances, with a dazzling, 360-degree spin to avoid the night's biggest wreck, staying in contention and out of trouble to earn a fifth-place finish and a spot in the 10-race chase for NASCAR's title.
Now it's the other drivers' turn to worry.
"Mark's in," Jimmie Johnson, who is No. 2 in the points race, said this week when he was asked about other drivers he's concerned about in the top 10. "Mark's got a lot of momentum on his side."
Not just momentum, but also a determination to show that even though his team needed all 26 races to secure a spot, it belongs in the race.
"It is a top-five race team, no matter what," Martin said of crew chief Pat Tryson and the No. 6 team for Roush Racing. Even if Martin hadn't made it into the final 10, he said, "I know in my heart that this was a team that should've been in the top five if things would have gone better for us. It sure beats what we had last year."
Martin finished 17th in points last year, only the second time in the last 15 seasons he's been outside the top 10. In 10 of those seasons, he finished in the top five with four seconds, including 2002, and four thirds.
Now, the new points race that begins Sunday in New Hampshire is a chance to put behind him a blown engine and 43rd-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500, as well as one other DNF and a raft of bad luck that made his last chance to make the chase completely exhausting.
"It's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he said.
Following the race, Martin planned to fly his family home to Florida, hoping against hope that two hurricanes hadn't done too much damage, and to sleep, putting the tension behind him and gearing up for the chase.
First, there were thank-yous that needed to be said, not only to the fans and his team, but also to the drivers who were rooting for him.
"It really means a lot when the guys in the garage give you that kind of respect," he said. "There were a lot of drivers that came up to me on Saturday night to offer their congratulations."
Among them was Roush teammate Matt Kenseth, the defending series champion, who laughed about how it seemed Martin had worried for naught.
"He was so stressed out all week. To watch him it was kind of cute in a way, even though he's only got a couple of years left," Kenseth said. "I think he's really the darkhorse."
Martin is eighth in points, but has four top-5 finishes in the last five races. Martin, 45, claims the past championship near-misses don't bother him now, but he also knows this may be the best chance he has at the cup.
"We know that we've come a long way," he said, "but it's a whole new season now. We can't rest on anything and we sure can't let up."