BROOKLYN, Mich. - Two of the greatest stock car drivers of this era made their final laps around Michigan International Speedway yesterday. One waved good-bye and intends to make it stick, while the other hedged a little, winked, and crossed his fingers.
Both Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin made it public long ago that they intended to make this their last year in Nextel Cup Series racing. While both are in the midst of successful seasons, Wallace has held his ground on leaving the driver's seat, while Martin has thrown it into neutral, if not reverse.
In yesterday's GFS Marketplace 400, their last visit to the Irish Hills two-mile oval, Martin was a disappointing 17th after battling for the lead late at one point, while Wallace was 13th after starting from the 38th position.
Both veterans appear headed for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, which puts the top 10 drivers in competition for the season crown over the final 10 races. But leaving Michigan was still a bittersweet moment for both.
"That's really frustrating to end up like that," Martin said, "and we just really need to watch what we do here because it's a no-brainer that we're in the Chase, unless we beat ourselves. It was a good car, but things just didn't work out."
Martin, who recently has backtracked on his retirement from Cup racing, saying he might be talked into one more season, is fifth in the points race leaving MIS. Wallace is fourth, and sour after track debris covered the front of his car and created an overheating problem.
"I think we'll be OK on the points when it all shakes out, but that was pretty frustrating," he said. "We came up through the field and were about to move into 10th but all of those hot dog wrappers got us. The water temp shot up to 250 and we had to pit. We would have been in the top 10 if not for bad luck."
Wallace, whose MIS resume shows 35 top-10 finishes, with 21 of those coming in his 44 starts in the Cup series here, said he closed the book on a great racing experience at MIS.
"It's been a great ride," Wallace said. "I remember my first ASA win here many years ago, I believe it was 1983, the IROC victory, the four or five Cup wins here - it's been a lot of fun. I'll come back and visit, but this will be my last time here behind the wheel."
Martin won't quit racing, whether he comes back in Cup or not. He plans on competing in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series in 2006, saying that series features a much less demanding schedule of races and reduced number of sponsor-related appearances.
"This has been awesome," Martin said. "But the difference between Rusty and I is that I have no intentions of not being back here behind the wheel. If nothing else, I'll be up here in the truck series for sure. I look forward to racing here for many years to come."
Martin, who led 10 laps yesterday, has won eight races at MIS, with four of those wins coming in Cup races. Martin has 26 top-10 finishes in Cup events here, with two wins the NASCAR Busch series, one win in ASA and one win in the IROC series.
FUN IN FOLLY: Former Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte finished well behind the leaders in yesterday's GFS Marketplace 400 at MIS, but still made it an enjoyable experience with their own version of misery loves company. Gordon, who was 15th, and Labonte (16th) stayed together late in the race in a futile effort to advance through the pack. "It's just funny because me and Bobby were riding around there, saving fuel and I was drafting off of him and he wanted to let me go one time and I was like, 'No, no - I'll stay right here,'●" Gordon said. "There at the end when I saw the white flag, I got inside of him and raced him off Turn 4 and beat him to the line."
STEWART STEADY: Tony Stewart remained the season points leader after a fifth-place finish. He was as high as second with 20 laps to go after starting 36th.
Stewart has had 15 top-10 finishes this year and eight consecutive top fives. Coming into the GFS Marketplace 400 he had won five of the past seven Cup races. Yesterday was his ninth top-10 finish in the 14 races he's competed in at MIS.
"I couldn't stay up there at the end, with all of the pit strategy," Stewart said. "It is kind of frustrating to a certain degree, but at the same time we all could have all got fuel like everybody else did."
Only six drivers are within 400 points of Stewart in the standings.
BIFFLE SIXTH: Greg Biffle, the winner of the past two Cup races at MIS, finished sixth after a 31st-place start. He is third in the points race.
"We just missed that win by a little bit, but we rebounded," Biffle said. "That's what we needed to do was get a good top 10."
EARNHARDT JR. DROPS: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 18th-place finish cost him one spot in the Cup standings. Earnhardt fell from 15th to 16th.
Earnhardt ran in the middle of the top 10 for about 20 laps but after a Lap 144 pit stop he said his car worsened. He led Lap 191 but had to pit for fuel on the next lap.
"We had a car that at a couple of points in the race was nearly perfect," Earnhardt said. "We got better and better all afternoon, but we really began to struggle with the last set of tires. It got tighter and tighter and then it got really bad at the end."