Dropping The Hammer: Phoenix "Marks" The Spot As Martin Wins At PIR
The team was the same, but the driver who pulled into Victory Lane was a throwback to the grittier days of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.
Ageless Mark Martin, competitive as ever at 50, captured the Subway Fresh Fit 500K over the essential Who's Who of "Young Guns of Stock Car Racing" in Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle.
From start to finish, Mark Martin's No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet Impala SS, fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, ran on a rail around the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, leading 157 of the 312 circuits en route to the Batesville, Arkansas native's 37th career triumph and first trip to the winner's circle in 97 races.
Starting from the pole position, the future hall-of-famer avoided the mistakes that took teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon out of contention.
Earnhardt, Jr., who led for 63 trips around PIR, looked like he was heading home with a solid top-10 finish in sights after a dubious start to the race with another episode of the pit stop hiccups.
Unfortunately, it was not to be for the driver of the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Drinks Chevy.
In the closing stages of the race, former teammate and Richard Childress Racing driver Casey Mears made contact with Earnhardt, Jr., sending "Little E" into the wall and a 31st place finish.
Meanwhile, Gordon's day, which started off promising in the desert sun from the fourth spot, turned into a nightmare as the points leader struggled with the handling of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
Hanging on a top-10 spot in the closing stages of the race, Gordon's pit crew, who have been solid and consistent all season long, had a rare misfortune with a late stop, forgetting to install some lugnuts on the DuPont machine.
Gordon's return to pit road to install the lugnuts dropped the No. 24 team down the race results in a lowly 25th spot.
As a result, Johnson, who finished finished fourth, trimmed his teammate's lead to an 85 point advantage.
With Martin's win, Hendrick Motorsports has now taken the last five races at the Avondale, Arizona facility.
Just how elated was Martin when he finally won his first race since the 2005 season?
Martin's words immediately after crossing the stripe was like a child receiving a video game system for their birthday.
"Man, I love driving y'all's cars," radioed Martin to his crew led by wrench-header Alan Gustafson.
Gustafson's sentiments were shared, telling his driver that he was the man and that he was "unbelievable."
The "Dan Marino of NASCAR" shined in his moment of glory, paying homage to a late friend and NASCAR champion in Alan Kulwicki with a backwards victory lap famously dubbed as the "Polish Victory Lap."
Martin, who has yet to win a title, may have his best shot at the Cup glory with his latest ride.
Defecting from Ford's Roush-Fenway Racing stables following the 2006 season, Martin became a member of the Bowtie Brigade, first with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated from 2007-'08 and now as Rick Hendrick's driver for the No. 5 team.
Coming short twice for that elusive victory following his days with Roush, including an epic defeat at the hands of Kevin Harvick in the '07 Daytona 500 by mere inches, Martin's competitors and critics never wavered on the man's abilities to win again.
Looking at the race winner, Martin may be 50 years young but has the physique and energy of an NFL running back.
"I told the guys (that) I don't have any problems keeping up with a 25 year old— at least for the next 15 minutes," Martin said of his win.
Even two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, the owner and driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevy, took his runner-up finish graciously.
"There's no shame in losing to a guy like Mark Martin," Smoke said following the race. "I am really happy for Mark."
Martin's win was celebrated with visits by his former colleagues at Roush, including some congratulatory praises by Roush himself and his drivers Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
With the victory, Martin boosts his chances for a Chase seed significantly, jumping from 18th to 13th place, just nine points behind 12th place, the final spot for a "playoff" berth.
Adrenaline April closes out next Sunday when the Sprint Cup series tackles the Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron's 499.
Drivers and crews will go from worrying about the handling of their machines to the margin of error on the track, as competitors will race in close quarters all-race long around the 2.66 mile tri-oval facility in Alabama.
Kyle Busch, who finished 17th at Phoenix, is the defending champion of the spring race at Talladega.
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