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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]
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a fifth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Elliott takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon.  (Photo by Ashley R Dickerson for Chevy Racing)
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Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row Toyota, leads Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, races to victory Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory with a burnout Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins.  (Photo by Andrew Coppley for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory with his wife, Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, crosses the finish line for the victory Sunday, February 28, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. This was Johnson`s 76th career win, 5th in Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finished second. The victory ties Johnson with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in NASCAR premier series wins. (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row Toyota, drives through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 27, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, has an on track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, takes the chequered flag ahead of Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, takes the chequered flag ahead of Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS drives to victory Thursday, February 18, 2016 winning the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Can-Am Duel races at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. This is Earnhardt Jr.`s second consecutive Duel victory. He will start on the inside of Row 2 for Sunday`s Daytona 500 race. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, rookie driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS captures the pole Sunday, February 14, 2016 during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Elliott, who takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon, is the youngest driver ever to win the pole. He will lead the pack at the start of the February 21 race. (Photo by HHP/ Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 13, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo Credit: Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and his crew members pose in Victory Lane after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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