Martin looking good, but worries

He captures outside pole, but The Chase, situation in Florida preys on mind

Auto Racing

September 11, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - Mark Martin sat staring into space yesterday afternoon. Wishing? Dreaming? Resting? Maybe a bit of all three.

"It's been a long month," he said after earning the outside pole beside pole-sitter Ryan Newman for tonight's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 Nextel Cup race. "I'm tired. I just want to get to the race and get all this stuff behind me."

There is a lot of stuff.

Not only is Martin fighting for a spot in the postseason Chase to the NASCAR Nextel Cup, but he has been coping with keeping family life normal.

Martin lives in Florida, where two hurricanes have landed in the last month and a third is expected. Living a normal life there, especially over the past two weeks, has been near impossible, especially when Hurricane Frances made her slow assault on the state and eventually dumped nine inches of water on Daytona Beach, his home.

Before the hurricane hit, Martin packed his wife, Arlene, and son, Matt, into his Cessna Citation and flew them to California for last week's race. Then to Batesville, Ark., to visit his original home and car dealership, then to Charlotte, N.C., for a tire test that was rained out. Then they flew here.

None of that was easy as Martin had to pilot his own plane because his longtime pilot was hired away and his new one hadn't come on board yet.

"Which is OK. I can fly in any kind of weather," Martin said. "But I have to go no matter what the weather and, with Arlene and Matt along, I had to not scare them.

"If I scare Arlene, she won't fly with me any more. So, I had to negotiate the weather and not bump too much."

Yesterday, Martin's qualifying performance was pretty smooth, too, as he made the front row for a Nextel Cup race for the first time this season.

Newman, who won this race last September, earned the pole with a run of 128.700 mph in his No. 12 Dodge. And Martin, who qualified earlier in the heat of the day, surprised even himself with a burst of speed for a lap of 127.407 mph in his No. 6 Ford to clinch the outside pole.

Martin was the best qualifier of those closest to the Nextel bubble. Under the NASCAR points system, the top 10 and all drivers within 400 points of the leader after tonight's race make the field for The Chase, a final 10-race dash to the title.

There were a lot of jokes yesterday about points leader Jimmie Johnson being a marked man, but Johnson was more worried about his own performance than about anyone trying to take him out early.

"There's as much pressure on me and Jeff [second-place Jeff Gordon] to do well and keep the number of players in The Chase to 10 as there is on those guys to get in," he said. "We'd rather improve our chances of winning the title by racing eight other guys instead of 15."

As for Martin, his response to a front-row starting spot was mixed, "It's good to have a good position at the start," he said, "but there are all kinds of ways to lose it."

If you know Mark Martin, you know his glass is always half-empty. Finishing second in cup championship points races five times will do that. At 45, he doesn't know how many more chances he will have.

This season, for all its frustrations, seems to be one of his best opportunities. And in unusual expressions of warmth, he hasn't missed one chance to say how grateful he is to his team.

"I didn't talk about being grateful last year because I wasn't that grateful," said Martin, who went 22 races without a top five finish to be 17th in the final standings. "I was upset because I thought that could be the way my career would end - on that humiliating performance.

"I couldn't fix it. But my team has been able to fix that for me. How could I not be grateful? ... This year this team is like family. I feel their loyalty and love and they feel it coming from me."

His team is on a roll, but Martin is leery, "I've had my heart broke so many times, so many ways," he said. "Things find a way of not working out."

As he stared, lost in thought, he might have pictured a wreck he couldn't avoid, an aggressive driver taking him for a spin, a broken part.

"Whatever is going to happen is going to happen," he said. "We know we're we're going to run good in this race, but the realist in me also knows I can't stop the air from coming out of a tire if it gets a hole in it."

Lineup

At Richmond, Va. Lap length: .75 mile

1. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 128.700 mph. 2. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 127.407. 3. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 127.389. 4. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 127.208. 5. (30) Jeff Burton, Chevy, 127.208.

6. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 127.137. 7. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 127.077. 8. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 127.047. 9. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 127.005. 10. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 126.999.

11. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 126.981. 12. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 126.743. 13. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 126.725. 14. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 126.713. 15. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 126.671.

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