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MOTOR RACING

Mark Martin is still up to good old tricks

The 50-year-old driver mostly dominates race on the way to winning the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

July 12, 2009|Brian Hamilton

The stubble on his head contains more salt than pepper, and the wrinkles run across Mark Martin's face like long-ago dried-up riverbeds. And for a while there, twilight racing had a far less poetic meaning for him, semi-retirement leaving him with a loose grip on the track.

So it was with unmistakable giddiness that a man half a century old took to the radio early in the LifeLock.com 400 on Saturday, his Chevrolet hastily and efficiently chopping through traffic and turning the Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile oval into a veritable senior circuit.

"This is easy, bud," Martin told crew chief Alan Gustafson.

He spoke far, far too soon, as double-file restart dueling extinguished his well-earned lead and then returned it to him, all in the final 50 laps. But in the end, Martin remained a 50-year-old verging, taking his series-leading fourth Sprint Cup victory of the year and reasserting his place in the chase for the first championship of a nearly three-decade career.

"Rick Hendrick, he wouldn't quit," Martin said of the team owner who coaxed him back to full-time driving this year. "I was persuaded to do it. And I can't believe what an idiot I would have been. I had no idea it could be this much fun. The whole thing has been beyond my dreams."

Martin began the weekend perched just on the outside of the top 12 in the points standings, thanks to a 38th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway last weekend that capped a streak of three consecutive finishes outside of the top 10 after a victory in Michigan on June 14.

And after thoroughly dominating most of the race, Martin lost the lead to Jimmie Johnson off a double-file restart after a Sam Hornish Jr. crash on Lap 220. Martin recaptured the lead when a double-file restart pushed Johnson well back on Lap 252.

Thus continued a rejuvenation that began when Hendrick coaxed him back to a full-time racing schedule for 2009. Though there has been some rough luck along the way, Martin has nonetheless produced his fattest victory total since 1998, when he won seven races.

What's more, the win in Joliet erased a minor blemish from Martin's record, as the speedway was the only track at which he never had recorded a top-five finish. But as it did during the Nationwide Series race the previous night, the speedway rewarded those with the fastest cars, and Martin was among that group.

Half of the NASCAR schedule had elapsed before the flag dropped Saturday, and while that chronology alone did not necessarily thrust the championship picture into vivid Technicolor, if you were in trouble, if you needed to do something soon, you knew who you were.

Whether substantial shuffling was even possible at the speedway remained the issue. A caution on Lap 39 provided the first significant change, as a shaky stop for then-leader Johnson dropped him six spots and allowed Martin to grab the lead when green-flag racing started again.

Off a restart after a five-lap caution that ended on Lap 136, Martin got an early challenge from Johnson but pulled away in due time. Same for the green-flag pit stop with less than 80 laps to go: Martin went in with the lead and came out with it.

The last obstacle was the late caution with seven laps to go when Kyle Busch "blew up," in his words, and Martin had to fend off a Jeff Gordon car with four new tires on yet another restart.

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bchamilton@tribune.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The standings

Sprint Cup Series standings after the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. The top 12 drivers qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Chase begins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 20 and is the last 10 races of the season.

*--* RK DRIVER PTS BEHIND STS POLES WINS TOP 5 TOP 10 1 Tony Stewart 2,884 Leader 19 0 2 11 15 2 Jeff Gordon 2,709 -175 19 0 1 10 13 3 Jimmie Johnson 2,672 -212 19 0 2 8 13 4 Kurt Busch 2,526 -358 19 0 1 6 10 5 Denny Hamlin 2,457 -427 19 0 0 6 8 6 Carl Edwards 2,438 -446 19 0 0 5 9 7 Ryan Newman 2,385 -499 19 1 0 5 9 8 Kasey Kahne 2,336 -548 19 0 1 3 7 9 Juan Montoya 2,321 -563 19 1 0 0 9 10 Kyle Busch 2,298 -586 19 1 3 4 6 11 Mark Martin 2,296 -588 19 3 4 5 9 12 Matt Kenseth 2,295 -589 19 1 2 4 7 13 Greg Biffle 2,285 -599 19 0 0 5 8 14 David Reutimann 2,219 -665 19 2 1 4 5 15 Clint Bowyer 2,169 -715 19 0 0 3 7 16 Brian Vickers 2,149 -735 19 5 0 2 8 17 Jeff Burton 2,113 -771 19 0 0 2 6 18 Marcos Ambrose 2,078 -806 19 0 0 2 5 19 Jamie McMurray 1,960 -924 19 0 0 0 3 20 Joey Logano 1,956 -928 19 0 1 1 4 *--*

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