Mark Martin can't afford to get ahead of himself.

He simply won't let that happen.

Too many times, NASCAR's foremost series has teased him with the prospect of a championship, only to snatch it away.

In this season's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which Martin leads by 35 points after Sunday's hard-fought victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martin, 50, dismisses any expectation of winning the title.

That's understandable. Four times in his career of more than 20 years, Martin was second when the points were totaled at the end of the season.

"I've taken some pretty hard ... swallowed some pretty big pills in my racing career, so I'm cautious about expecting things," Martin said, after fending off a fierce assault from Juan Pablo Montoya during a three-lap dash to the finish of the Sylvania 300. "Like I didn't expect to win this race once the cautions started falling. I didn't expect it. I knew I'd fight for it, but to expect it and then it doesn't happen will break you in half. Expect to fight for it, and then you accept the results for what they are.

"It's just how I manage my emotions and everything else. It doesn't mean I don't try hard. I give my guts, man, but I'm not going to plan on something and then have it not work out."

Montoya could have dashed Martin's hope after a restart on Lap 298 of 300. As the race leader, Martin picked the outside lane for the restart, and he and Montoya barreled side-by-side into the first corner. Martin didn't clear Montoya until the cars roared off Turn 4.

Martin slowed as the cars reached turn 1 on Lap 299. Montoya said Martin "stopped," assuming it was a manoeuvre to slow Montoya's pace.

"To be real honest, stopping is a strong word," Martin explained. "I made sure that I didn't go in there and lose it once I got in front of him. But his car was probably really strong there. ...

"We made all our time through the center and off the corner and kind of had to get into the corners easy, and once you got the lead, you need to make sure you don't drive it in there and turn it sideways, slide up to the top of the racetrack. I mean, how stupid would I look then?"

Montoya could have knocked Martin out of the way after he slowed into the turn. Montoya didn't, in part because Martin always has been Mr. Clean when racing his fellow competitors, and in part because Martin was one of the first Cup drivers to accept the open-wheel star into the fraternity and give him frank advice.

"If the second-place guy wasn't me, I think somebody else would have been a little bit more aggressive," Montoya said after the race.

Maybe, maybe not. Denny Hamlin, who passed Montoya for the runner-up position, would have had to do some soul-searching before deciding to move Martin out of the way.

"I don't know," Hamlin mused. "I would have probably gone for the win. But I don't know. I mean, you always think about who it is. You think about whether that guy has knocked you out of the way at the end of a race or not, and Mark never has. I don't know. It's tough to say what I'd do in that situation."

The bottom line is that Martin didn't win the race on Sunday. He won it years ago with the sort of clean, respectful racing that encourages his rivals to race the same way. He won it Aug. 22 at Bristol, when he refused to make a reckless move against race winner Kyle Busch in the closing laps. His fellow competitors took note.

"That's just my code," Martin said. "I'm criticised for that code, and sometimes it's overlooked, the fact that you get what you give."

If there's any sort of cosmic justice, the 2009 season will give Martin what he really deserves - a championship.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News