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Don't hand Martin the title yet

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.




Related Pictures

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Mark Martin and Juan Montoya [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, places his name in the top twelve on The Chase Grid after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 14, 2014 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The 16 drivers of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup are photographed at NASCAR Chase Media Day, September 11, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
The 16 drivers of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup are photographed at NASCAR Chase Media Day, September 11, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
The 16 drivers of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup are photographed at NASCAR Chase Media Day, September 11, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
(Back Row L-R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, and Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Back Row L - R) Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kelloggs/Frosted Flakes Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Catepillar Chevrolet, Miss Sprint Cup Madison Martin, Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Gwaltney Ford, (Front Row L- R) Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Call Before You Dig Ford, AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Bush`s Beans Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, pose with the Sprint Cup Trophy after qualifying for the Chase  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Cessna Chevrolet SS, was just short of making the Chase finishing in fourth place, Saturday, September 6, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Eight Chevy drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, finished in second place Saturday, September 6, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Gordon leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Eight Chevy drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS, made the Chase finishing in ninth place Saturday, September 6, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Eight Chevy drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet SS, made the Chase finishing in ninth place and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS, was just short of making the Chase finishing in eleventh place Saturday, September 6, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Eight Chevy drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, races to win with Kyle Larson, driver of the 42 Target Chevrolet SS beside him finishing in eighth place Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne, a Hendrick Motorsports driver, is in the Chase. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, celebrates his win with a burnout Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne, a Hendrick Motorsports driver, is in the Chase. (Photo by Christa L. Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by his Hendrik Motor Sports teammates Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Toughbook Chevrolet SS (left), Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS (center) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS (right) after his victory Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne joins Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr. in the Chase. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmer`s Insurance Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory Sunday, August 31, 2014 in the Nascar Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. With this win, Kahne, a Hendrick Motorsports driver, is in the Chase.  (Photo by Christa L. Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, takes the green flag waved by Evander Holyfield to start the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Trevor Bayne, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, Justin Allgaier, driver of the #51 Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, and Michael Annett, driver of the #7 Allstate Peterbilt/Pilot Chevrolet, are involved in an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The #28 Texas 28 Spirits Stage Dodge, driven by JJ Yeley, is seen after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Nationwide Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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