Fancy footwork fuels Martin's victory
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The old man is back with an exclamation point.
The old Lady in Black saved the last dance for him Saturday night, and 50-year-old Mark Martin got his second win in the past four Cup races.
While others dominated storied Darlington Raceway in stretches of the renewed Southern 500, Martin courted slowly, methodically, never flashily, to get his first Cup win here since 1993.
He quietly took the lead by staying out under the 15th of a whopping 17 cautions, a classic war of sheet metal here.
After Martin finally moved out front, and the green flew with 42 laps to go, he was in absolute command, holding off ferocious bids from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson until Martin finally pulled away cleanly in the final 10 laps.
"It was absolutely out of control out there tonight," a drained Johnson said afterward.
But in Victory Lane, the beaming Martin talked about a breezy win: "Once we got out front, man, it was just easy."
The last five laps, when it was clear Martin had the race in hand, amounted to a lightning promenade to the roaring accolades of old-line Darlington fans who stood with five fingers held aloft, signifying Martin's car number, almost as reverently as they used to hold up three fingers for the late Dale Earnhardt.
"I'm lovin' it, man!" said Martin, who'd broken the notion that he was over the hill when he won at Phoenix on April 18, and drove the point home here.
Martin participated in prerace ceremonies for previous Southern 500 winners, and "David Pearson told me I was gonna go out and win this thing," Martin said.
"David Pearson [the winningest driver ever at Darlington, with 10 victories here] is the coolest guy there is."
Then it all began to sink in on Martin.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "Just overwhelmed."
Greg Biffle dominated much of the race, leading 117 laps before falling back with four-tire changes while others took two. Then Biffle, trying to catch up, spun and crashed with 72 laps to go.
Martin Truex Jr. took command on pit strategy, with short stops, until he finally had to pit for tires to hand Martin the lead.
"There were maybe 10 good cars at the end," Johnson said, "and how they came out from that final pit stop was how they were going to run. The track is just so narrow, and the car is big and boxy. ... It's all about track position."
So the veteran Martin stayed out through the final three cautions, and even though Johnson stayed out with him, Johnson failed twice with surges that got him alongside Martin.
And now Martin, who only a month ago was beginning to catch criticism for not being as productive as his younger Hendrick teammates, now has as many wins this season as the other three put together.
Johnson has one win, Gordon one, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. none. Earnhardt had crept into the top 10 at times Saturday night until he spun and crashed with 25 laps left, to bring out the final caution.
After the final restart with 21 laps left, Johnson was out of moves for Martin, and the old man simply drove away, as he'd done in the late stages at Phoenix.
But this was Darlington, by consensus the toughest, most taxing oval on the Cup tour, and only Friday, Martin had shrugged when asked how he'd won way back in '93 and why he hadn't won since.
"What went right in '93 for us was that nothing went wrong," he said.
And that was pretty much the way it went Saturday night. The old Lady spared him while the others were hustling her and she was slapping them around, and when she saved the last dance for the old man, it was a waltz.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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