Not so fast, Rick Hendrick.

Not so fast, Alan Gustafson.

It's a little early to start talking about a championship for Mark Martin. First things first -- your driver still has to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Hendrick, Martin's team owner, and Gustafson, his crew chief, were convinced before the season started that Martin could win the Cup title that has eluded him for nearly three decades.

They're right. He can -- but he still has to make the Chase.

"I, legitimately -- Alan as a witness -- he and I talked about it," Hendrick said Saturday night, after Martin won his series-best fourth race of the season. "Mark doesn't want to hear this, but I'm going to say it, anyway. Alan and I said we can win a championship with Mark Martin this year. We said that before we started.

"We were confident we could win races. He's so smart and takes care of his stuff. The Darlington car didn't have a scratch on it (after Martin won the May 9 race there) -- the only car that came out of that race without the right side tore off of it. So he's a little bit more modest than we are about him. I think we felt that way early on."

With four wins, worth 40 bonus points to start the Chase, Martin would be the top seed in NASCAR's postseason, if the ten-race run for the championship started today. Only one problem: The Chase doesn't start today.

The field won't be set until the chequered flag flies Sept. 12 at Richmond, seven races down the road -- and Martin still has to make the Chase. Twelve drivers will qualify, and Martin, despite the four victories, is eleventh, with a tenuous eleven-point advantage over 13th-place Greg Biffle.

All else being equal, Biffle can wipe away those eleven points by finishing four spots ahead of Martin in the next Cup race July 26 at Indianapolis.

After falling out the week before at Daytona, Martin climbed back into the top twelve in the Cup standings Saturday night. Were in not for a succession of problems early in the season (he was 34th in points after four races, thanks to successive blown engines at California and Las Vegas), Martin would be solidly in the top twelve, rather than forced to fight for one of the final positions.

Clearly, it's too early to start talking championship for Martin, but don't make the mistake of underestimating his chances. Beneath his public persona -- a folksy mixture of humble pie and self-effacing pessimism -- Martin is driven to the point of obsession by a relentlessly hungry competitive spirit.

That's why he's willing to torture himself, at age 50, with a workout regimen that would exhaust most drivers half his age. With the tenacity of a pit bull, Martin returned to full-time racing with Hendrick this year at the top of his game, after two years of partial schedules at Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Nonetheless, Martin knows the championship talk is premature. Four times in his career he has come tantalizingly close to a title. Each time he finished second. Accordingly, Martin would rather look at the half-empty glass and make the challenge that confronts him appear more daunting than it really is.

He came to Chicagoland 13th in points. Whatever the stats say, Martin left the track trying to convince himself he's still 13th.

"There's seven more races ... before the Chase starts," Martin said after the race. "All that means to me is I'm likely to lose out more than I gain going forward. So that's why I'm just going to keep the mind-set. I'm going to still think I'm 13th like I did here, because it seemed to work pretty good.

"I'm going to go to Indy and drive the fool out of that thing, just like I did this week."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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