Commentary

Surprise winner emerges at Michigan

Updated: June 14, 2009, 11:02 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A fuel-mileage finish? A memorable heart-thumper? Epic? Euphoric? Heartbreaking? Fraught with twists, surprises and subplots?

Yes, indeedee. Sunday's LifeLock 400 may have been the Sprint Cup tour's second straight fuel-mileage race, but this was vastly more entertaining than the one last week at Pocono.

This was as suspenseful as any fender-slamming dogfight.

Mark Martin, who inherited victory after Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle ran out of gas from dueling, ran out himself coming off the final turn but was able to coast to the checkered flag.

"Usually they're not very exciting and don't wind up making a big show," Martin said of fuel-mileage races. "I think the fans really got a great show here. You got two guys wrestling for the win [Johnson and Biffle], which is what everybody wants to see.

"And then a surprise winner coming out of it. A lot of drama."

Second-place Jeff Gordon agreed that "typically when you think fuel-mileage race, you think boring. This was not a boring race. It made for great entertainment, and that's what we're here for."

[+] EnlargeMark Martin
Jason Miller/US PresswireMark Martin (5) passed Jimmie Johnson (48) for second, then overtook Greg Biffle for the win Sunday at Michigan.

Johnson, who'd dominated the race but had fallen behind Biffle following the last pit stop, forced the issue up front in the final 10 laps. That's what separated everything from last week's slowdown at Pocono, when leader Tony Stewart just kept slowing and conserving until he held on and won.

Johnson took the lead with six laps to go, but Biffle kept fighting back. Johnson ran out of gas with two to go, and Biffle ran out on the backstretch on the last lap.

Martin had pulled out of the dogfight, choosing to conserve fuel, but "when Jimmie ran out, I said, 'Since we're this close, I'm gonna run hard!'" Martin said.

It was Martin's third win of the season, tying him with Kyle Busch for most in the series. But he'd given up on this one before Johnson ran out.

"I was running for the points, man," he admitted in Victory Lane.

Now this was the same Martin, age 50, who just a few weeks ago, after winning at Darlington, proclaimed he was no longer paying attention to points and was just living in the moment, running all-out, all the time.

But coming into Sunday's race, Martin was 13th in the point standings, just outside Chase range. And team owner Rick Hendrick had convinced him not to risk missing the Chase and using the seeding points for wins.

It was that very timidity that paid off, for if Martin hadn't backed off the Johnson-Biffle duel and conserved, "I'd never have made it," he admitted.

As it turned out, the win catapulted Martin up five spots in the standings, to eighth, and gave him a total of 30 seeding points if he makes the Chase.

Another fascinating subplot came out after the race, from third-place finisher Denny Hamlin.

"I was really rolling on the 5 [Martin] there with about 10 to go," Hamlin said. This was while Martin was still conserving.

"Then I just thought, 'Man, it's not worth it. If the 48 [Johnson] and 16 [Biffle] don't run out, what's the point of trying to catch this 5?'

"Little do you know it's for the race win," Hamlin said. "The 16 and 48 kind of baited each other into running hard, and that's what happened."

Biffle figured he'd have had a win similar to Stewart's last week, had not Johnson mounted the charge.

"We would've made it, but the 48 came up there and put pressure on us," Biffle said. "I felt like I had a faster car than the 48, but I knew running that pace we weren't going to make it, so I slowed down a little bit."

Then Johnson pounced, but afterward, Biffle said, "I saw the 48 was a little loose, and I asked [crew chief Greg] Erwin if I could run him down, and he said, 'Go for it.'

"If I would have let the 48 go," Biffle lamented, "if I'd have stayed with my program, I would have made it, no problem."

So much "if only" going around.

Martin knew their feelings well.

"I've always, always come up short on the gas-mileage thing," he said of his career. "I always have. If you look at the stats, I've probably lost 25 and won two."

Driving along, thinking like that, "when the 48 ran out, I knew the 16 was just right up there [ahead]," Martin said. "I was just lollygagging. I got past the start/finish line. Came on the radio and said, 'I've got fuel pressure right now, I'm gonna go for it.'

"I jumped on the gas, ran hard. I couldn't believe how much I was gaining on him [Biffle] through the corner. Then all of a sudden I got on the straightaway, and I was really gaining on him.

"It was like, 'Whoa! Oh, he's out!'"

Afterward, Martin reflected on the most dramatic fuel-mileage race in his memory.

"Winning with a surprise, for some reason," he said, "is always the most fun."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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