Martin takes advantage of JJ wreck

11/9/2009 - NASCAR

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The window of opportunity, the opening almost no one honestly thought would happen, came on Lap 3 when Jimmie Johnson crashed in Turn 2 after colliding with Sam Hornish Jr.

Mark Martin took advantage of it. Jeff Gordon, not so much.

Martin was grinning after finishing fourth Sunday in the Dickies 500, knowing he raced to the front at the end and made it count.

Gordon was frowning after ending the day 13th, realizing he blew his chance, probably the only chance of getting back in the title hunt.

Neither man gained as much as he could have, since Kurt Busch won the race. But Busch still is 171 points behind Johnson. Too little, too late.

Martin now has a shot. He sat on the pit wall afterward and tried his best not to say what everyone knew he was thinking: "I told you so."

No, he didn't rub it in. Martin had said all along that crazy things happen in racing and Johnson's big points lead didn't mean the Chase was over.

Johnson's 38th-place finish Sunday helped prove his point. But Martin didn't scold and chastise the reporters intently listening to his every word.

He was too happy for petty reprimands. Gaining 111 points on Johnson was good enough, moving to 73 points behind the Chase leader with two races to go.

"The race is still on, man," Martin said. "I don't know why everybody tried to cap this thing off. There's two more left. You just have to wait and watch. Things still can happen."

However, even Martin knows the gap remains a significant deficit with two races to go.

"It's still a long shot," he said. "They [Johnson's team] have great performance, so we can't go out there and outperform them 70-something points. But the racing's not over with yet. It feels good. It didn't feel good before."

Johnson's finish was remarkable considering the team spent more than an hour in the garage rebuilding the No. 48 to get it back on the track.

Martin was running just ahead of Johnson when the accident happened.

"I was right in front of Sam," Martin said. "I could see [Johnson] spinning. I've been that guy, but I was ahead of it this time."

Johnson limped into the garage, immediately transforming the Chase back into a meaningful playoff.

"It's just racing," Martin said. "There are six guys racing for the top six spots. That's how I look at it. I know everybody thinks it's just a race for first and second. We just go out there and score everything we can."

Martin did; Gordon didn't.

"It was a missed opportunity," said Gordon, who is now 112 points behind Johnson. "The story of my life at Texas Motor Speedway. I'm just terrible at this place. I don't know what it is.

"I can qualify well and the guys gave a real good car on Friday, but I just don't have the feel for this place. It challenged us all day today. I was just horrible."

Gordon was involved in a crash midway through the race. He managed to stay on the lead lap, but the truth is the No. 24 Chevy wasn't good before the accident.

And it should have been. He started on the pole and won the spring race at TMS. But Gordon has had more bad days at Texas than good ones.

His frustration was showing Sunday. A victory, or even a top-5, would have given Gordon realistic hope of attaining that fifth Cup championship. But Gordon knows he left too many points on the table.

A victory could have moved Martin within 40 points of Johnson, but Martin feels good about how the No. 5 Chevy team performed.

"We were junk yesterday and not very good the first half of the race today," Martin said. "So I'm so proud of [crew chief] Alan Gustafson and the team. They hit on something, and I was like, 'Maybe we shouldn't change anything now.' We were really competitive toward the end of the race."

Now it could get competitive at Phoenix and Homestead, Fla., to see if Johnson can hold on for that fourth consecutive title. Can Martin get there?

"I still have a hard race in my hands with Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo [Montoya] and Tony Stewart," Martin said. "Two of those guys [Gordon and Stewart] already have knocked me out of a championship before, and they're breathing down my neck. I've got my hands full."

At least Martin has something to shoot for now. He got the break he needed. Johnson was fallible in this race.

So was Gordon, and it couldn't have come at a worse time.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.