Is it simply Martin's time?
LOUDON, N.H. -- As high fives were exchanged and smiles washed across their faces, it was obvious relief had displaced anxiety at Roush Racing.
That was the scene in Richmond, Va., last Saturday night after Mark Martin's fifth place finish pulled him from 10th to eighth in the standings. It completed an inspiring month-long run and secured him a spot in the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup.
"I'm thrilled Mark got in," said Roush teammate Matt Kenseth. "I saw him [last Saturday] morning, it looked like he was going to throw up in the drivers' meeting."
With a playoff spot weighing in the balance that night and huge sponsor expectations hanging over his head, who could blame Martin for a little nausea? A few nerves were understandable.
"It's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," said Martin. "I just don't recall having to fight as hard as Pat and I have, just to get into something. We just didn't want to be excluded. Now, we're in."
Don't think for a minute though that Martin's satisfied. In 18 full NASCAR Cup series seasons (22 total) he's come agonizingly close, finishing second four times, but has never won the title.
Perhaps this is the best chance Martin's ever had. The 10-race playoff system would seem to favor drivers with experience. Drivers who know how to race smart and carefully calculate their moves. Drivers who can compete at a high level on racetracks of varying dimensions.
The upcoming schedule is diverse and includes short tracks, superspeedways and restrictor-plate tracks. Martin has a collective 16 victories at seven of the remaining 10 facilities.
In May, Martin said he felt his team was, "poised for a fantastic summer." It's now fall and he hasn't disappointed. And while he's still not ready to boast, his unusually high level of optimism remains intact.
"We're going to go out and win us some more races," said Martin, whose lone victory this season came at Dover, Del., in June.
Races, maybe. The championship? Well, Martin certainly knows he has the equipment.
"We have three killer race cars sitting in the shop, which is more than I've had since 1998 -- race cars that I really like," says Martin. "We're ready."
Martin has a favorite car, chassis No. 231. He likes it so much that it tested his strength as a teammate earlier this year.
"I loaned it to Jeff Burton and I asked every five laps, 'Is the 99 OK?'" Martin explained with a laugh. "We let him run it [in Michigan] and I was sick to my stomach."
Burton brought the car back unscratched. So far Martin has two top-three finishes with chassis 231 -- at Michigan and California. While it's not being used in New Hampshire this week, it will be in the rotation.
For weeks rumors have been circulating that Martin's considering retirement, and in one sense that's made him a sentimental favorite. But don't be fooled; he's more than that. Martin, the hottest driver in the Nextel Cup Series, has recorded four top-5 finishes in his past five races and presents a legitimate championship threat.
Despite having momentum, Martin downplays its advantages. "One puncture in a tire takes away all the momentum," he explains with a nervous smirk. "It's nice to have but there's things out there that you can't control that can break your momentum."
The Chase begins Sunday at the one-mile New Hampshire International Speedway. Of the remaining tracks on the schedule, Martin believes this track is his weakest. Nonetheless, they didn't test there because of their focus on just reaching the Chase.
"We had to race like Richmond was the last race of our lives, so we put everything toward that," added Martin, who's finished second at the Magic Mile three times but has never won.
On Friday, Martin got his first glimpse of the sterling silver Tiffany's trophy he'll be racing for. On Sunday, race fans get their first look at how he'll be racing for it. This veteran warns, however, that one race does not a champion make.
"Don't forget that when this thing is over with Sunday, it's not over," Martin asserts. "There's nine more races and it won't be decided here in New Hampshire and that's a good thing."
Especially for Martin, whose best races could be down the schedule. Race two of the Chase is in Dover, a track Martin describes as his favorite and the site of his only victory this season.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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