Nice guys do finish first
LOUDON, N.H. -- Mark Martin fought it out for this one, slugged and clawed and widened his points lead at the outset of the Chase for a championship he has never won. And at long, long last, there was controversy over how he won a race.
"Mark just screwed me out there," Juan Pablo Montoya said of the driver esteemed by his peers for more than two decades as NASCAR's cleanest, fairest driver.
Martin, of course, had a gentlemanly and credible explanation for the dogfight that ended Sunday's playoff-opening Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But first, let's let Montoya let 'er rip. It's not every day -- or year, or decade -- you get to hear someone complain about Martin's tactics.
"He always does run very clean," Montoya said, "so I was kind of surprised when he did that. I know it's the Chase and everything, but he just "
Montoya clearly had the strongest car all afternoon, and had led 105 of the 300 laps. So, on a double-file restart with only three laps left, and Martin and Montoya starting on the front row, Martin looked cooked.
But the diminutive 50-year-old turned bulldog. Restarting on the outside, he held Montoya on the bottom of the racetrack until he could clear Montoya for the lead with two laps to go, then drove down into Turn 1 with Montoya hot on his bumper.
And then, "he stopped the car on the apex," Montoya claimed, reverting to his old Formula One vernacular for what, in NASCAR lingo, is an old-fashioned brake check in the bottom of a corner.
"I could have pushed him out of the way," Montoya said, and put a slight variation on the mutual admiration society he and Martin had established for the past week. "I respect him a lot. But next time, I'll -- I won't wreck him, but I will bump him."
They'd been pointing to each other as the guy to beat in the Chase going into Sunday's opening round of the 10-race playoffs. And Montoya implied Martin took advantage of their mutual trust.
"I think you gotta do it to somebody you trust is not gonna knock you out," Montoya said. "If the second-place guy wasn't me, I think somebody else would have been a little more aggressive."
That is, perhaps someone else would have pulled one of those bump-and-runs to knock the leader out of the way and drive under him to win, as is so common in NASCAR nowadays.
If anything, Martin's move was pre-emptive against that very sort of thing.
"I would have done the same thing," Montoya conceded upon finishing his vent. "You gotta learn from it. I haven't fought for enough wins [in NASCAR].
"Did I get screwed? Yes. Because I had the 11 [Denny Hamlin] beside me the last three laps, and [Martin] drove away."
Faced with a split-second choice of hitting the slowing leader or backing off, "you don't want to spin the guy out," Montoya said, "but when he slows down like that, you maybe want to move the guy a little bit and get that bumper inside."
Hamlin said Martin's maneuver helped him get past Montoya, who was left helpless on the inside behind Martin, for a second-place finish, while Montoya had to settle for third.
"Yeah, it was [a factor]," Hamlin said. "The 42 [Montoya] was kind of bottled up on the bottom with Mark."
Would Hamlin have hit Martin or backed off?
"I probably would have gone for the win," Hamlin said, implying he'd have made contact. "But I don't know. You always think about who it is -- about whether that guy has knocked you out of the way to win a race or not. Mark never has. So I don't know."
Oh, well this controversy was fun while it lasted -- until Martin came into the media center for the winner's news conference.
Wouldn't you know it was just too juicy to be true? Or at least, realistic?
Told of Montoya's complaints, Martin's eyes twinkled a bit, and he smiled a little.
"Yeah, I stopped, compared to how fast his car was going," Martin said with some ironic merriment. "I don't think I stop-stopped. It just maybe looked to him like I stopped based on how fast he was "
He paused and considered.
"I fought for that race," he said. "But I wouldn't do anything -- and probably still wouldn't -- do what some of you wish I would." The media corps had been razzing him for years about when or if he would ever play as rough on the track as many of his peers do.
Then he grew more analytical, straight-faced.
I fought for that race. But I wouldn't do anything -- and probably still wouldn't -- do what some of you wish I would.” -- Mark Martin
"Stopping is a strong word," he said. "I did make sure that I didn't go in there and lose it once I got in front of him. His car was really strong there [entering the corner]. My car was not fast into the corner. We made all our time through the center and off the corner, and kind of had to get into the corners easy.
"Once you get the lead you need to make sure you don't drive it in there and turn it sideways and slide up to the top of the racetrack.
"I mean, how stupid would I have looked then?"
To run into the corner with the same velocity Montoya had in chasing him, "I would have slid to the top, lost the race, and had to admit to the world that I blew it.
"So that's what happened there."
So with the controversy pretty well defused, we'll have to settle for the fact that Martin, at what he considers one of his worst tracks -- this tight, 1-mile paper clip-shaped oval -- didn't just hold onto the 20-point lead with which he entered the Chase as top seed, by virtue of bonus points for his four wins in the regular season.
With this fifth win -- breaking his tie with Kyle Busch, who missed the Chase, for most wins this season -- Martin actually expanded his lead to 35 points over the two drivers now tied for second, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, who finished fourth Sunday.
As usual, Martin would take credit for virtually nothing other than sitting in the car.
His crew chief, Alan Gustafson, "really pulled off something big in figuring out how to win a race with me here at Loudon," Martin said. "I don't get around this place that well."
Even Gustafson conceded that their strategy coming into the playoff opener was to "kind of defend here. We didn't want to give up too many points."
And yes, the crew had worked frantically all during Saturday's practice, and into the race on Sunday, to make adjustments.
But, Gustafson added, winning three restarts in the final 20 laps -- including that last little sprint with Montoya and Hamlin -- "That was all Mark."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.