- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Mark Martin's been in a lot of races over the years, but this past weekend was a first. Though NASCAR officials technically threw the red flag at New Hampshire to clean the track, it's unlikely they'd have done so had the drivers were behaved themselves.
Instead, the red flag was as much a time out to restore order to a race gone mad, as it was a chance for the safety crews to clean up the debris on the track.
"That was a first, I think, for everyone. It wasn't all a bad thing," Martin says. "I think they should just do that at every race before the green flag comes out and maybe we could have some real racing.
"As you noticed after that, it resembled a NASCAR race from the old days, where we ran about 60 laps without a caution, which is unheard of nowadays. I applaud NASCAR and I applaud the drivers for letting us have a little real racing going on there."
More of the same could certainly play into Martin's hands this Sunday, considering his success at Dover Downs over the years. A four-time winner at the 1-mile oval, he's finished in the top three there in his last three starts, including a third-place finish in June.
Entering the race seventh in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, he trails Tony Stewart by 54 points. Considering Stewart's had plenty of success at Dover, Martin will likely need another solid run to remain in the thick of things.
In 38 starts at Dover, Martin has 23 top-10 and 18 top-five finishes. The 18 top-fives are the most of any driver.
"Dover has always been one of my favorite tracks. We've had great success there over the years, including the last three years when we've been up front and a serious contender," Martin says. "The very first time I went to Dover, I loved it from the start. It is definitely in my list of top tracks and there probably is no cooler track to go and race on. I'm looking really forward to getting back up there this weekend and hopefully putting together another strong run."
Martin steered clear of the insanity at New Hampshire to post a seventh-place finish in a car borrowed from teammate Kurt Busch. For Dover, he'll use either the car that ran at Michigan, Indianapolis and Fontana, Calif., or a new car that's yet to see a race.
Either way, he heads to Dover feeling good about things.
"We were pretty happy to get out of Loudon with a seventh. It's one of our weaker tracks in the Chase, and we were able to go there and do what we needed to do," Martin says. "This weekend and Dover couldn't come at a better time. We are looking to put together another strong run there and hopefully we'll be able to leave there in pretty good position in the Chase."
Crew chief Pat Tryson, a Pennsylvania native, certainly hopes that's the case. Tryson, a linebacker and team captain for West Chester University's football team in the late 1980s, will be looking to go on the offensive this time around.
"Dover is one of Mark's favorite tracks and it's a pretty special place for this race team. We got a win there last year and we've ran really well there the last three races," Tryson says. "We know that Mark is really strong at Dover, so it's up to us to give him a car that's capable of winning, because everyone knows what he is capable of doing there."
With the field as tightly bunched as it is these days -- seven of the 10 drivers in the Chase finished in the top eight at New Hampshire -- every second spent on pit road can make a difference.
"The pit stops are always incredibly important, but now that the spotlight is on 10 races; anything that goes wrong can be the critical mistake, whether it's behind the wheel, whether it's on the racetrack, or whether it's just flat bad luck -- if it's in the pits or whatever," Martin says. "So the spotlight is on right now and, in some ways, that makes the pressure a lot higher.
"But in the real world, it's down to 10 races and that's quite a bit of racing and a lot of things happen. The championship won't be decided in the first race and it won't be decided, really, in the last race. It's decided by all 10 put together."
Martin and the others can only hope their individual chances aren't ruined by a driver bent on retaliation for a slight on the track, be it real or perceived.
Much has been made of the shenanigans that spiced things up in New Hampshire, though Martin wasn't aware of everything that was going on while in his Roush Racing Ford. Upon returning home, though, he quickly realized he hadn't been in an ordinary affair.
Still, he'd be just as happy if everyone's focus was on the Chase and not the crazy things that resembled professional wrestling.
"I don't like it, but to be honest with you, I watched the news when I got home to see what everybody said and to see what everybody did," Martin says. "And my wife is a great indicator -- she's not the biggest fan in the world but she said that was the greatest race she'd seen all year because of all that stuff. Be real honest about it -- the people love that stuff. Not that it's a good thing, I think it's a really bad thing, but it is news -- big news."
Martin's uncertain future is also news, but he'd prefer it not be a big deal. With Jamie McMurray seemingly unavailable to take over the No. 6 car until 2007, Martin might spend another season in Nextel Cup.
He'd dubbed this season the "Salute To You Tour" to give something back to his fans and he'd really like this to be his last year. For now, though, he'll worry about next year once this season concludes in Homestead, Fla.
"I doubt if I'll have as much fun next year as this year. I don't think about next year," Martin says. "I'm having a blast this year. The fans have made this the best year of my career and all the folks that I've been able to work with and the competitors and everyone have made it great.
"I'm not thinking about next year, obviously, because I don't want to. I'm thinking about these last 10 and the final activities that I'm gonna do with the fans and the salute program. That's where my focus is."
At Dover, Martin would like nothing more than to thank his fans from Victory Lane once again.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Having escaped the madness of New Hampshire with a top 10 finish, Mark Martin has much bigger goals this weekend in Dover, Del.