AP Photo/Tony Ding
Amid the hoopla over Matt Kenseth's tumbling out of the Chase for the first time and Brian Vickers' outracing Kyle Busch for that final berth, the old man rode unobtrusively and consistently to the top seed in NASCAR's playoffs.
Mark Martin set himself up for his greatest triumph or his greatest disappointment yet.
At 50, he could become the oldest Cup champion ever. (Bobby Allison set the current mark, age 45, in 1983.) Martin is already the oldest driver to make the Chase.
Tied with Busch for most wins this season (4), Martin leapt from 10th to first in the standings with a fourth-place finish in the last regular-season race of the year, at Richmond on Saturday night.
Then he said an odd thing for a man who has been in the hunt for a Cup nine times in his career and never won it.
"Pressure is off," he told ESPN's Dave Burns, who found him sitting alone on pit road after the Richmond race.
"Pressure is off; it won't build back up until late," Martin elaborated. "Maybe four [races] to go or something."
He meant the pressure of the roller-coaster ride through late summer, the nagging question of whether he'd make the Chase at all to take advantage of his seeding potential. His position in the points kept getting rattled by flukes such as running out of gas at Michigan in August, after he'd won there on fuel mileage in June.
Four times he has finished second for the championship, three times he's finished third -- and that was under the old season-long points format -- and twice before he has made the Chase.
He has put those peaks and chasms behind him, so that "of course, I'm living in it now, but to me, this is certainly the best year of my career, the most fun," he told reporters late Saturday night. "And since Chicago [his last win this season, in July], some of that fun has been sort of smothered out by all of the pressure -- we are in, we are out, we are in, all that."
Glitches aside, he hasn't run poorly, and going into the Chase, "the thing that I'm excited about is, our race team has been so strong since Chicago. The cars have gotten better and better on the racetrack and those are the kind of race cars and the kind of effort you have to give to be a championship contender."
He has fought enough title wars to know they don't reach crescendo and crisis until the final month, "so now we go racing," and until there are four races to go in the 10-race Chase, he'll wait and see before he feels the heat he's felt so often through the years.
But here's how Mark Martin has learned to think, at 50, after nine times in the hunt:
When, at Richmond, did he sense he really had made the Chase?
"The checkered flag," he said. "I've had a lot of things go wrong in my career."
Nationwide Series: No backflip, but a victory for Edwards
Trivia question: What career milestone did Carl Edwards pull off with his Nationwide win at Richmond on Friday night?
Going from dead last at the start to first at the finish, right?
No, this was the third time this season he'd done that. And the fifth time in his career.
No backflip. That was the milestone.
"I hope the fans understand," he told ESPN reporters in Victory Lane.
It was all about the broken foot he suffered more than a week ago while playing Frisbee.
Not that the freak injury hampers his racing. "It's not the weak link right now," he told reporters at the track. "It's not holding me up, so it shouldn't be an issue."
It's just that his landing off his backflip has a greater chance of reinjuring the foot than racing, and he didn't want to tick off his doctors.
Climbing slowly out of his car in Victory Lane, with a little hop to favor the right foot, felt "a little weird," he admitted. "I really enjoy doing the backflip. But I won't be doing that for a while."
This time he left the acrobatics to his pit crew, and they won the race for him, getting him out ahead of Kevin Harvick with 24 laps to go under the race's final caution.
Edwards' broken right foot then sent his Ford sprinting away from Harvick and Kyle Busch in the final laps.
Harvick was pleased with his run. "We were there at the end and just came up a little bit short," he said.
But Busch wasn't, calling his car "third-best, probably fourth-best; the 88 car [Brad Keselowski] was running us down."
It was a strong night for Detroit manufacturers, who took three of the top four positions, with Busch's third-place Toyota also in the mix. Edwards was in a Ford, and Harvick and Keselowski were in Chevrolets.
"These guys have picked up some grip somewhere," Busch said. "I don't think we've lost anything. These guys have just gotten better."
Edwards' win cut Busch's points lead to 201, but that's a mountain with only eight races to go.
"We're trying to catch Kyle, and we've got to run like this to do it," Edwards said.
Camping World Truck Series: Serendipitous win for Skinner
A new bad guy is budding in NASCAR, formerly known as mild-mannered Matt Crafton.
He took out the second- and first-place trucks on two successive late restarts Saturday at Gateway International Raceway, both times tapping the victims on their rear bumpers -- rather than left-rear quarter panels, as he claimed afterward.
The second bump-out, which destroyed the truck of runaway points leader Ron Hornaday Jr., got Crafton a rough-driving penalty that cost him the win.
NASCAR had given Crafton the benefit of the doubt when he took out Todd Bodine with eight laps to go, because it appeared Bodine was crowding him to the inside.
That got Crafton up to second place for a restart behind Hornaday, who'd been dominating the race and looking for his seventh win of the season.
With four to go, Crafton got to Hornaday's bumper but not to his fender, sending Hornaday spinning into traffic.
"I'll know how to race him now," the veteran Hornaday, who still has a commanding 192-point lead over Crafton in the Truck series standings with seven races to go, told Speed TV reporters.
Crafton spewed a steady stream of "who, me?" protest.
"I was absolutely beside myself," he said, that NASCAR parked him briefly for the penalty. "I did not go in there and run into the back of him."
Ah, but the replays indicated otherwise.
Mike Skinner, who took advantage of the melee to win his second Truck race in a row, joined the criticism of Crafton.
"I've got to applaud NASCAR," Skinner said in Victory Lane. "Sometime, we've got to stop being able to wreck the leader to win these races. Pretty soon the last 20 laps are just going to be the next guy wrecking the next guy "
Skinner figured he'd earned the serendipitous win, in that "I chose not to wreck Ron twice this year when I had the opportunity, and I think today that came back and paid dividends."Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Racing Resources SaysSprint Cup Series
- Denny Hamlin won the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
- Kyle Busch finished fifth and missed the Chase by just eight points behind Brain Vickers, who earned the 12th and final playoff spot.
- Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to qualify for all six Chase playoffs (2004-2009).
- This is the first Chase for Brian Vickers and Juan Pablo Montoya.
- Mark Martin -- at 50 years, 8 months, 3 days -- is the oldest driver to make the Chase, passing Rusty Wallace, who was 49 years, 27 days.
- Hamlin scored his sixth career victory in his 141st start. He scored his second win in 2009. He became the seventh repeat race winner in 26 races this season.
- Toyota swept both races at Richmond in 2009. Kyle Busch won the spring race.
- Hamlin has scored six straight top-10 finishes in a streak that began at the second Pocono race. He scored the 75th win for Joe Gibbs Racing. It was JGR's seventh win this season.
- Hamlin led six times for a race-high 299 laps, including the final 195.
- Jeff Gordon moved into sixth all time in laps led at Richmond, passing seventh-place Cale Yarborough and sixth-place David Pearson. Gordon led six times for 98 laps.
- Chevrolet has scored 12 wins in 2009, leading all manufacturers. Toyota has nine, while Dodge has three and Ford has two.
- Kurt Busch (second) posted his 14th top-10 finish of the season.
- Jeff Gordon (third) extended a six-race streak of top-10 finishes at Richmond.
- Mark Martin (fourth) has scored seven straight top-10 finishes in his last seven short-track races.
- Brian Vickers (seventh) extended a nine-race streak of top-15 finishes that began at Daytona in July.
- Matt Kenseth finished 25th and missed the Chase. He finished 38 points behind Vickers before the points reset.
- Tony Stewart (17th) ended a five-race streak of top-10 finishes at Richmond. Stewart has finished outside the 10 in the last four races. He has scored 18 top-10 finishes in 26 races this season.
- Joey Logano (14th) was the highest-finishing rookie contender.
- Jeff Burton (18th) has finished 16th or worse in the last 12 races.
- Tony Stewart (17th) and Elliott Sadler (34th) have each been running at the finish in the last 49 races, the longest current streak.
- Regan Smith posted his first DNF in his 54th career Cup race.
- The top 10 consisted of three Toyotas, five Chevrolets and two Dodges.
- Carl Edwards won the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond International Raceway. Edwards won from the rear of the field for the third time in 2009 and fifth time in his career. He scored his third Nationwide Series victory in 10 races at Richmond. It was his 24th series victory in 168 races, tying Tommy Houston for seventh on NASCAR's all-time wins list. It was Edwards' fourth victory in 2009.
- Edwards led once, leading the final 24 laps. Denny Hamlin (17th) led 101 laps, the most laps in the race. Hamlin had led just 32 laps in his previous eight Nationwide races at Richmond.
- This was the ninth victory for Roush Fenway Racing in 2009 and its ninth at Richmond, the most of all time.
- Kevin Harvick (second) has scored five top-5 finishes in his last five series races.
- Kyle Busch (third) has led in 25 of the 27 races in 2009. Busch has a 201-point lead over the second-place Edwards.
- Brad Keselowski (fourth) scored his ninth straight top-10 finish, extending a streak that began at Gateway. He has scored top-5 finishes in the last five races.
- Keselowski has been running at the finish in his last 59 races, the longest current streak. His last DNF came for an accident at Las Vegas in March 2008, when he finished 23rd.
- Jason Leffler (32nd) has finished outside the top 15 in just five of the 27 races this season, including the last three.
- Trevor Bayne (seventh) tied his career-best finish.
- Justin Allgaier (eighth) was the highest-finishing rookie contender.
- The top 10 consisted of four Chevrolets, four Toyotas, one Dodge and one Ford.
- Mike Skinner won the Copart 200 at Gateway International Raceway. Skinner is the 11th different race winner at Gateway. He has now won on 21 different tracks in the Truck series. It was his third victory in 2009. Skinner's last win came at Iowa last week; the last time he won in consecutive races was in March 2007, when he won three in a row.
- This is the third win for Toyota at Gateway and 10th of the season.
- Randy Moss Motorsports posted its third series victory -- all have been with Skinner.
- Matt Crafton wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. with four laps to go while Crafton was battling for the lead. Hornaday finished 17th; Crafton finished sixth. Hornaday now leads Crafton by 197 points in the driver standings.
- Hornaday led 116 of the 162 laps, the most of all drivers. He has led 323 of the 482 laps raced at Gateway in the last three races.
- Johnny Sauter (second) tied his career-best finish. He was the highest-finishing rookie contender.
- Brian Scott (third) posted his seventh top-5 finish of 2009.
- Aric Almirola (fourth) has posted top-10 finishes in his last seven starts.
- Tayler Malsam (fifth) posted his career-best finish.
- Ryan Sieg finished ninth, a career best.