The Hot Pass: Martin stays level despite decisive win
Mark Martin had the dominant car in Saturday night's LifeLock.com 400, but he warned his crew not to become overly optimistic in the closing laps.
And even after scoring his fourth win of the season and his first victory at Chicagoland Speedway, the veteran still had to ask over the radio: "Tell me we won? I can't believe it."
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Martin, 50, led 179 of the first 223 laps and relinquished the lead to Jimmie Johnson on Lap 223. There was good reason for him to stay up front as long as possible, as every move outside of the lead was a step further away from a shot at the Chase. Since Martin entered the race 13th in the standings and 65 points out of 12th place, he was quite aware of the task at hand. However, he refused to "get sucked into" the points rollercoaster even though he has moved into the 11th spot — 11 points ahead of 13th.
"We were 13th coming here," Martin said. "What we needed to do was lead the most laps and win. No matter what happens going forward — I may change my mind later — but right now I'm leaving the track the same points position I was in last week, 'cause it's just a rollercoaster."
As strong as the No. 5 Kellogg's team has performed all season, Martin knows how quickly the points can slip away. He's been as high as eighth in the point standings and as low as 34th after suffering through two engine failures in the first three races of the season.
"I feel more solid and better about the effort that we've made," Martin said. "I can't do anything more about how the points have fallen. We have had a horrendous number of really unfortunate situations.
"I will only be disappointed for these guys if we were to manage to not make it. It's very, very tight. It's very, very close. For me to get four wins halfway in was beyond my dreams. These guys deserve it, and I hope we do."
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Sunday after his 182nd Cup win on Saturday night, said he and crew chief Alan Gustafson had faith in Martin from the first time he drove a Hendrick car in the Nationwide Series. That's when Hendrick knew that Martin and Gustafson would be players.
"When you ask Jeff Gordon what he thought, you ask Jimmie Johnson, Can you get Mark to drive all the races? I said, I think so," Hendrick said. "He's awesome. And Alan and I, again, witnessed it, just knew you can tell when a guy is so smart on a chassis that he knows how to run a fuel run. I'll put him up against anybody I've had on a car, planning a full fuel run and tire run.
"I just knew the two of these guys would be good."
On Lap 248, Jeff Gordon was eighth entering the pits. The decision by crew chief Steve Letarte to take four fresh tires and make a wedge adjustment, enabled the No. 24 to quickly gain positions in the closing laps and circumvent the riff-raff.