Good gas mileage fuels Martin win MBNA 400 victory is his first at Dover

September 22, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- During the final five laps, team owner Jack Roush recited numbers with precise regularity.

"Eleven-point-seven second lead with five to go, Mark. 11.7, four to go. 11.1 three to go. 11.3, two to go. Here's the white flag, Mark."

And then as Mark Martin drove his Ford under the waving green flag on a fall-like afternoon at Dover Downs International Speedway, Martin felt a sense of satisfaction, as he complimented his owner on giving the team the means with which to win the MBNA 400 Winston Cup race.

"You said you were going to do it, buddy," Martin said. "You said you were going to win a race on fuel mileage this year and you did it."

And then Martin let out a satisfied sigh.

"Kyle [Petty] had us covered on the racetrack," Martin said. "But Jack Roush took care of him. Jack won this race for us on fuel mileage. I used to grouse about it and they'd tell me it was me, that I used more fuel than the other guys because I drove every lap so fast. And I'd tell them, that driving fast was the only way I could pass anybody. Finally, Jack and the team worked so hard they've figured it out and got us where we are today."

The victory is the 22nd of Martin's career and the fourth of this season, but his first at Dover.

To get this win, Martin had to average a track-record speed of 132.719 miles per hour and still needed the benefit of Roush's tremendous fuel mileage to beat Petty, who had the best car most of the afternoon.

"I led the most laps, but I think it was a matter of track position," said Martin, who led 194 of the 400 laps. "I started up front, and Kyle started [23rd] and had to work his way up. I really hated [that] he didn't win, because his car was great."

Martin's first-place finish was worth a total of $195,305, including a $114,000 Unical Bonus for winning from the pole.

Dale Earnhardt, who is on a career-high, 53-race losing streak, matched his best finish of the season with second, bringing his Chevrolet home 10.334 seconds behind Martin.

"Good gas mileage allowed us to get second," Earnhardt said. "It's just a matter of time before we win a race."

Petty, who had the strongest car but had to pit for gas one more time than Martin and Earnhardt, finished third, and Bobby Labonte, the last car on the lead lap, was fourth.

"We got beat on fuel mileage, not on the race track," Petty said. "We'll take it. I feel good about the way we run. I like racing at Dover. Heck, I'm the only one who likes racing at Dover."

Yesterday, with the race cut from 500 to 400 miles for the first time, everyone seemed to like Dover's high-banked mile oval a little better. There was just one caution flag through the 3-hour, 50-secondrace, a fall record and one shy of the track record set in the first race at the speedway in 1971 when the June race was caution free.

Despite the win, the excellent fuel mileage and closing within 105 points of Winston Cup points' leader Jeff Gordon, Martin was surprisingly subdued after the victory.

Roush said his driver was probably feeling more relief than elation, given he'd never won at Dover before, and was getting signals from his car with about 10 laps to go that the oil belt might be about to come off.

But Martin, 38, had other reasons.

"We expect to win," he said. "It's what we expect from ourselves every week. Right now, I've already enjoyed winning. I've already talked to [crew chief] Jimmy [Fennig], and I'm already thinking about next Sunday's race at Martinsville. Besides, that, I'm mentally-drained and ready to get out of this wet uniform."

It's also true that Martin, though still in second place in the points race, has said that this is the best season of his career, and that if he is ever going to win the Winston Cup title, this is the year.

He believes he and his team are better than ever, and the results he is getting on the race track are better than ever. Already this season he has won the International Race of Champions (IROC) title, five Busch races and four Winston Cup races.

"Experience is a good thing," Martin said. "And enthusiasm and youth and bravery and the feeling of invincibility are precious as well.

"But, hopefully, there's a time when your enthusiasm and talent overlap and you're at your best."

That's where Martin believes he is now. That's why a victory at Dover isn't the thrill it might have been 10 years ago, when he and Roush first teamed up. To Martin, a win at Dover is just one more step on his road to the Winston Cup, a championship that has been eluding him throughout his 14-year career.

NOTE: Jeff Burton retained fourth place in the Winston Cup points race with a steady performance. Burton, who has been hampered by a virus that has damaged a nerve in his left ear, finished 11th after starting last.

1. (1) Mark Martin, Ford, 400, $195,305

2. (33) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 400, $63,105

3. (23) Kyle Petty, Pontiac, 400, $40,205

4. (5) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 400, $41,465

5. (3) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 399, $39,845

6. (16) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 399, $34,440

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