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Last Friday morning Mark Martin stood in the infield at Bristol Motor Speedway and squinted through the morning sun at the towering, empty grandstands surrounding the track. The following night, he knew, those stands would be filled with 160,000 fans for the Sharpie 500, all of them anticipating the kind of action that has made this August evening in Tennessee's Thunder Valley the hottest ticket in the sport.
Question: Why do they hold NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway? Answer: Because chariot races are illegal. This steeply banked .533 of a mile concrete oval reliably produces the sort of angry wheel-to-wheel bumping and grinding--and occasional hand-to-hand combat--that would give Ben Hur the vapors. "This place is right up at the top of the list as far as not having control of your destiny," said Martin. "You breathe a sigh of relief when you get out of here."
Few drivers have had more experience at Bristol than the 47-year-old Martin, who is competing in his 20th and--he promises--final full-time Cup season. Two nights before, he had won the Craftsman Truck race at Bristol to become the first driver to win there in the trucks, in the Busch Series (1996) and in the Cup Series ('93 and '98). Asked what the achievement signified, Martin replied, "That I'm old. I've been racing a long time."
He has. And, after four runner-up finishes in the Cup standings, Martin desperately craves one more shot at a championship. He came into Bristol fourth in the points with three races to go before the start of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But with just 138 points separating Martin from 11th-place Kasey Kahne, Martin wasn't the only one dreading the bedlam at Bristol.
As a result, perhaps, Saturday night's race turned into an almost orderly, downright cordial affair, as the contenders chose points racing over paint trading. "Very respectful" was how third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. described the affair, a note of wonder in his voice.
Another reason for the largely unbristly Bristol was the confident drive of Martin's Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who made jousting for the checkered flag a moot point. Though his number 17 Ford was not the fastest car, Kenseth ran at or near the front all night and, after passing Earnhardt to take the lead on Lap 399, was in control over the final 50 miles. The victory was Kenseth's second in a row and fourth of the season, and it moved the 2003 Cup champion to within seven points of leader Jimmie Johnson, as both men clinched a spot in the Chase.
For Martin this most uncharacteristic of Bristol night races was marred by a most uncharacteristic bit of self-made bad luck. On a pit stop on Lap 67, Martin rolled to a halt outside his pit box and drew a one-lap penalty, dropping him to 34th place. Struggling to make his way through the field, his race went from bad to worse on a subsequent restart, when Scott Wimmer slowed in front of him and Martin rammed him, damaging the nose of his car. Martin limped home 28th and dropped to 10th in the points, 90 ahead of Kahne.
Even amid the celebration of Kenseth's victory, team owner Jack Roush, who has been with Martin for 18 years, seemed stricken when he said, "It will be one of the great disappointments of my life--not just my racing life--if we're not able to see Mark compete for this championship."