Martin wins Southern 500 in Chevy Top-7 sweep
Who says the old man doesn’t still have gas in the tank?
Mark Martin scored his first Darlington win since 1993 with a victory in Saturday night’s Southern 500, holding off teammate Jimmie Johnson to notch his 37th career NASCAR Sprint Cup win in a grueling, wreck-filled race at Darlington Raceway.
Tony Stewart came home third, followed by Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon.
Martin and Johnson ran the last 70 laps without stopping for fuel, leading a Hendrick Motorsports parade to the finish with six of the top seven cars running Hendrick equipment.
“This is unbelievable. Just absolutely unbelievable,” said Martin in Victory Lane. “This was a big surprise. You know we had a strong car but never expected to win.
“(Crew chief) Alan Gustafson is absolutely the best. I may have been his childhood hero, but I’m living a second childhood now and he’s my childhood hero.”
It was the second win of the season for Martin, who earlier in the season notched his first victory since 2005 with a win at Phoenix and now has six top-ten finishes in the last seven races.
Not bad for a guy who contemplated retirement just three years ago.
Martin inherited the lead with 45 laps to go after electing to stay on the track rather than come to pit road during the 15th yellow flag of the night on lap 319, bringing the field to the green flag followed by Johnson, Newman, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin – all of whom stayed out.
Johnson trailed Martin for the rest of the race, keeping Martin in sight over two more caution periods but never able to gain enough ground to make a move for the lead.
Finally, with 10 laps to go, Johnson told his crew he had “nothing” for Martin and began to back off to save fuel.
Martin coasted the rest of the way, winning by 1.531 seconds over Johnson.
Johnson’s second-place effort was a remarkable comeback for the defending Sprint Cup champion after crashing his primary car during qualifying. Johnson started from the rear of the field in a back-up car, a car that hadn’t turned a lap until the start of the race
“We’ll take second after what we went through,” said Johnson. “Clean air was so, so important that it really boiled down to strategy at the end. Once I got up behind Mark (Martin), got comfortable with the car, understood the grip level, I’m like ‘Damn, I got a great racecar’. Then I realized I had a shot at winning it.
“I pushed Mark as hard as I could. We needed to go into fuel-save mode at that point. Unfortunately just had to ride home.”
For Stewart, it was close-but-no-cigar yet again, posting his fifth top-five finish in the last six races, still looking for his first win as a car owner.
“That’s the best I’ve run in the Southern 500 so I’m ecstatic about it,” said Stewart. “I wish we could’ve gotten the track position but I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas. We’re doing things right, it’s just a matter of time.”
It was a frustrating night for many of the drivers as the track “too tough to tame” claimed its fair share of victims on Saturday with a track record 17 cautions flags, including defending race winner Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Dave Ragan and Clint Bowyer, who saw his no-DNF streak end at 83 – one short of the all-time record - after a hard crash on lap 222.
“It’s a wrestling match for 367 laps,” said Stewart. “We’re running so fast here, it’s such a narrow place. Any time they repave a place, it’s got a lot of grip, everybody’s fast. Everybody’s car feels good when the surface is fresh like this.
“That’s why you saw track position like you saw tonight, but at the same time that’s why you see a lot of cautions, because we’re running so fast around here.”
Martin was one of the few drivers who managed to keep his car clean all night, pulling into Victory Lane with hardly a scratch on the no. 5 Chevrolet.
“I felt like my car was 50 or 40 percent out of control, so I didn’t get close to anybody most of the time”, said Martin. “There were a lot of people eliminating themselves. You have to watch yourself if you want to survive conditions like they were tonight.”
Earlier this week it was announced that Martin would return to drive for Hendrick Motorsports for a full season in 2010, but Martin stopped short of setting his sights on a championship that has eluded him for so long.
“I’m just very, very happy right now and I don’t need to say we’re going to win a whole bunch more races,” said Martin. “It could happen, but if not, at least we got two (victories) instead of one.
“All I want to do is be happy and have fun doing this. If you don’t set yourself up for disappointment, then it’s much easier. It’s okay to have the passion. It’s okay to have the drive. But you can’t let it tear you apart.”
Saturday’s results jumbled the point’s standings a bit as Gordon holds onto the top spot, now leading Stewart by 29 points. Kurt Busch fell to third after a 16th-place finish. Johnson moved up to fourth while Hamlin slipped to fifth.
* Denotes Rookie
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