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MIS notebook: Martin proud of 3rd-place finish

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Rusty Wallace's crew works on his car yesterday during a pit stop in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Wallace finished 10th and is eighth in the point standings.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Mark Martin might have been the happiest third-place finisher in NASCAR history following yesterday's Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway. As he makes his farewell tour in his final year in the Nextel Cup series, Martin is clearly savoring each moment.

"I'm proud of what we did today," Martin said. "At the start of the season I said that I would like to go out near the top of my game, and if we keep this up, I can justify saying that I am at the top of my game. I really am the happiest that I can ever remember."

Martin, who started 15th, led the race for 10 laps and was pressuring second-place finisher Tony Stewart when winner Greg Biffle took the checkered flag.

"I've got to congratulate Biffle. He beat us like a dog out there - he just whipped us something terrible. Tony Stewart had dominated all day, but there at the end we ran with Tony. We made an adjustment thing and it brought the car alive. I didn't drive hard until late in the race because in order to finish first, you first have to finish. We played it safe until we felt we had the car to go after them."

Martin posted his 26th top-10 finish in his 39th race at MIS. He has had eight top-10 finishes in 15 races this year, and tied his season best with his third-place finish yesterday. He is fifth in the points race, just 269 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, and is focused on staying in the top 10 for the final segment of the season when the championship is decided.

"I can't say what we are going to do," Martin said, "and we're not really looking at that right now. We are just trying to make this Chase for the Nextel Cup. It's really, really, really tight. Broken parts and wrecks can destroy the opportunity for us. I have to miss those things if they happen in front of me."

EARLY EXIT: Brian Vickers saw his hopes of winning yesterday's race evaporate with a big splash just 40 laps into the event. Vickers, who had led more laps than anyone else over the previous three races (219), was running fifth at the time, but he lost control of his car and plowed into the water barrels protecting the concrete barrier at the end of pit road.

"We picked up a little vibration toward the end of that first run," Vickers said, "and we were going to pit pretty soon. It got out from under me getting into Turn 3 and I saved it, but then it got away from me again coming into pit road."

Vickers crunched the front of his car and spun across the grass before getting it restarted, and he drove straight back to the garage area for extensive repairs.

By the time the car was put back together and out on the track, Vickers was 42 laps down. He finished 41st, 46 laps down.

CHANGES FOR NO. 40: Sterling Marlin ran in yesterday's Nextel Cup race at Michigan International Speedway and David Stremme did not.

That is the present. The future in Nextel Cup racing, however, is much clearer for Stremme, the 2004 rookie of the year in the Busch Series, than it is for Marlin, a 10-time winner with more than 650 Cup races on his resume. Chip Ganassi Racing announced yesterday that Stremme will drive the No. 40 car in 2006. Marlin said he has been approached by a few teams and is confident he will have an opportunity someplace.

"I still have fun," Marlin said. "I mean, it's a deal that since I've been 12 years old, every day you get up and think about a race car, what you can do to make it better. When you wake up and you just feel tired, then that's the day you need to quit."

EARNHARDT JR. WOES: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s worst starting position of his career got even worse.

Earnhardt, who was scheduled to start 41st of 43 drivers yesterday, was moved to the back of the line as a penalty for unapproved adjustments to his car outside of the impound room.

After the first 30 laps, Earnhardt stayed mostly in the top 20. He finished 17th, dropping from 16th to 17th in the Cup standings.

"We finished better," Earnhardt said. "(We) might have had a top 10. It was a good car. We'll keep working hard."

MARLIN'S FIREBALL: Sterling Marlin was knocked out late in the race when his car caught fire. Coming around Turn 3 on lap 169, the engine in Marlin's No. 40 Dodge blew up. He spun around in an attempt to extinguish the flames.

"I've been driving race cars for a long time, and that's the first time I ever had one light up when I blew an engine," Marlin said. "We had a really good car."

Marlin was treated briefly at the first-aid center but was

unharmed.

JOHNSON STILL IN FIRST: Jimmie Johnson's 19th-place finish was enough to maintain his Cup series points lead. After gaining 74 points on Johnson, Batman winner Greg Biffle is trailing him by 49 points.

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