Martin adds to Chase lead
With a championship on the line, Martin fooled the competition and won.
The 50-year-old driver held off Juan Pablo Montoya on a three-lap sprint to the finish Sunday to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. After, Montoya accused Martin of holding him up at the start of the second lap.
“What he did, not cool at all,” Montoya radioed his crew. “I could have wrecked him.”
But Martin insisted the move, which clearly surprised Montoya, was within bounds.
“I fought for that race,” Martin said. “But I wouldn’t do anything. I still won’t.”
Whether Martin did anything wrong at all will be debated by many, but it won’t change the record books: Martin won his Sprint Cup Series-best fifth race of the season and extended his lead in the standings to 35 points over runner-up Denny Hamlin and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
“Pinch me. I am sure I’m sleeping. I am sure I am dreaming,” Martin said.
Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson used mid-race pit strategy to get the No. 5 into contention. He didn’t bring Martin in for a pit stop under yellow that was outside their fuel window, knowing they’d get a chance to stop later in the race.
It put Martin out front at the end, in position to spoil what was shaping up to be a blockbuster day for Montoya.
Making his 100th career start on his 34th birthday, Montoya won the pole in record-breaking speed and led every practice session while setting the stage for just his second career Sprint Cup Series victory.
Instead, he found himself slicing through the field at the end of the race. He went from fifth to second on a restart with 13 laps to go, and was on the inside of Martin on the restart with three laps to go.
They battled door-to-door for the first lap, and Martin finally slid in front of Montoya as they crossed the start-finish line. They ran bumper-to-bumper through the first turn, and Martin appeared to slow just a bit as they headed for Turn 2.
It caused Montoya to roll out of the gas — and lose considerable momentum — as Martin pulled away to a sizable lead.
“I didn’t expect that,” Montoya said. “I was expecting him to run pretty hard. He just ran very defensively, and I just got caught by surprise. I think if I would have would have been prepared I probably would have jumped to the outside.
“You’ve got to learn from it. I haven’t fought for enough wins.”
Although Montoya said Martin “stopped,” in front of him, Martin didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
“My first instinct to answer that question would be, ’Yeah, I stopped — compared to how fast his car was going,”’ Martin said. “I don’t think I stopped, stopped. Maybe it looked to him like I stopped based on how fast he had been.
The race ended under caution when AJ Allmendinger spun on the frontstretch as the leaders began their final lap. NASCAR waited for Allmendinger to get his car off the track and was slow to throw the yellow flag because officials were hoping to let the finish play out.
Instead, Martin, Montoya and Hamlin closed quickly on Allmendinger’s disabled vehicle, making for a chaotic final moment that could have led to wrecked race cars.
Hamlin slipped past Montoya for second-place as the three cars split Allmendinger on the way to the finish line.
“I think they should have waited until they did to throw the yellow because it could have cleared itself, and then they wouldn’t have spoiled the finish,” Martin said, defending NASAR’s delay in calling caution. “They do the best they can, and they’re really strong and pro fan.”
Johnson finished fourth and was followed by Kyle Busch, who missed making the Chase by just eight points. Afterward, NASCAR said the left front of his car was too low in post-race inspection, and he could be penalized this week.
Kurt Busch was sixth and followed by Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, defending race winner Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.
It was a decent day for almost all the Chase drivers, who need a strong race in the 10-race title hunt to set the pace for the championship battle. Since its 2004 inception, only one driver, Johnson in 2006, finished lower than sixth at New Hampshire and still won the title.
That’s bad news for Kasey Kahne, who lost his motor early and finished 39th. He was posting to his Twitter account about his crummy day from his airplane as he prepared to head home before the halfway point of the race.
After just one race, Kahne is last in the 12-driver field and 161 points behind Martin, the leader.
Considered the best driver in NASCAR without a championship, the 50-year-old is poised to finally grab one.
Martin, who announced a contract extension Friday that keeps him with Hendrick Motorsports through 2011, started the Chase as the points leader because of his four “regular season” victories. Now he’s got another win and a 35-point cushion over the competition.
Although he’s consistently said that Montoya, the former Formula One driver, is the dark horse of this championship hunt, Montoya believes Martin is the man to beat.
“I think he’s the most dangerous guy,” Montoya said. “He’s the guy with the most experience. He hasn’t won a championship, and he wants one, pretty bad.”