- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Mark Martin was the man of the weekend at Talladega, and not because of anything that happened on the racetrack, either. Martin made his news two days before the race, when it was announced he'd run a part-time Nextel Cup schedule for MB2 Motorsports next season.
"It was a huge disappointment to Jack Roush and to myself, but after 19 years, I wanted to do what I wanted to do and that was not a full schedule, and it was also not standing on the sideline watching Nextel Cup racing."
-- Mark Martin
His parting from Roush Racing after 19 years stole the headlines, whether soft-spoken Martin wanted it to or not. But the fact he wasn't a headline after the UAW-Ford 500 was just as big a deal in the grand scheme of things.
A year ago, an early crash at Talladega severely damaged Martin's hopes in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. A similar outcome this time around likely would have done the same.
So an eighth-place finish was just fine with him. In conjunction with the flat tire that left Jeff Burton 27th, Martin climbed within 10 points of Burton in the championship battle. Teammate Matt Kenseth is just four points ahead of Martin, with Kevin Harvick just 23 points behind Martin in fourth.
"We're in the best position we've been in in many, many years," Martin said. "We have a really strong team. Our cars have been fast most of the time this year, and we're sitting better than we have been in any other time than I can remember.
"There are still six races to go; although I do feel much better getting Talladega behind us, I've done this long enough to know it's quite a chore to pull one of these things off, so we have to go out and continue to run really well and we have to hope that things that we can't control don't bite us. If those things go our way, then we ought to be knocking on the door."
With finishes of fourth in May's Coca-Cola 600 and a fifth there last October, Martin has recent success at Lowe's Motor Speedway heading into the Bank of America 500.
Martin finished second in the standings on four occasions under the previous season-long points system and has been fourth the two years the Chase has been held.
So in what may well be his final full-time season, will Martin finally win the championship? And are his emotions starting to get the best of him as he ponders the possibility?
Not surprisingly, that hasn't been the case.
"So far, everything has been so blurry. This has been, by far, the busiest year of my life, and it's been a blur," Martin said. "I've been less obsessed with the results and a little bit more enjoying the moment this year than in the past. But if we're sitting where we are now three races from now, you can believe the anticipation will start to build.
"We're still six races out, and I'm still not feeling -- there's still a good bit of racing to go yet before we're really that close. If we could go into the last race and we're 10 points back [it will be different]. We'll have to wait and see, though."
What Martin hasn't had to wait for was the reaction to the news he'd be leaving Roush Racing. Martin had made it clear he wanted to cut back on his schedule next year and, for a time, it looked as if he'd run the full Craftsman Truck Series schedule for Roush Racing while running as many as a dozen Cup races with a team put together by Boris Said that has an affiliation with Roush Racing.
Eventually, though, Martin realized his heart was still in Cup, just not on a full-time basis. So the opportunity to run 20 Cup points races as well as two all-star races for MB2 Motorsports won out.
The team will compete on a full-time basis, with Regan Smith driving the remaining Cup races in the No. 01 Chevrolet. The reaction -- from the fans and from members of the media -- has caught Martin by surprise.
"I guess the thing is I've been 19 years staying the course and working with Jack Roush to build from scratch one of the strongest organizations in NASCAR racing, and it was just something that no one expects," Martin said of his move. "It was a huge disappointment to Jack Roush and to myself, but after 19 years, I wanted to do what I wanted to do and that was not a full schedule, and it was also not standing on the sideline watching Nextel Cup racing.
"It was something in between, and they couldn't accommodate that, so here we are. It is a big shock, I think, to everyone, but I'm excited about my new opportunity. It's going to be really exciting for me. I think that we're gonna surprise some people with the performance and I'm gonna have a lot of time off to do some things with my family that I haven't been able to do for the last 30 years and have some fun on the racetrack and have some fun off the racetrack."
Roush Racing president Geoff Smith said NASCAR rules also had something to do with it.
" NASCAR team limits prevented Roush Racing from putting together an additional team for Mark, so in the end, Mark had to move on -- in order to stay in the Cup series." Smith said. "He's meant a great deal to this organization, and we certainly wish him the best in whatever he chooses to do down the road."
Martin could use the kind wishes. MB2 has struggled this year, with drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek outside the top 30 in points. Although Martin is taking over Nemechek's No. 01 ride, the veteran will simply move to a new team within the organization as it expands to three teams with plans for a fourth.
"What I really wanted to do was drive a car that ran full time and had a full-time sponsor and had a full-time crew and team behind it because that's your best chance in being competitive," Martin said. "Bill's stuff and Terry Labonte's stuff have both been part-time teams and, therefore, they weren't able to be competitive against the guys that do it full time.
"You're only as good as the equipment that you're in, and I believe that there is great potential -- and so do the people at MB2 -- for improvement over 2006. Don't forget that they won a race in 2004."
That, though, is next year's concern. For now, Martin has six more races to chase that elusive Cup championship.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.