Top seeding in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup must agree with Mark Martin, and on Sunday, he took the first step toward the championship that has eluded him for more than 20 years.
The driver of the #5 Chevrolet held off a ferocious charge by Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart with three laps left in the Sylvania 300 and won the race under caution when NASCAR threw the yellow flag as the lead pack streaked through turn four on the final lap.
With the victory, his first in 26 starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martin increased his lead in the Cup standings to 35 points over three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who ran fourth at the Magic Mile in the first race of the Chase, and Denny Hamlin, who finished second.
Hamlin got past Montoya before the final caution to grab the second spot, and Montoya got credit for third. Kyle Busch ran fifth, followed by Chase drivers Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Elliott Sadler, Chaser Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer completed the top ten.
Martin, 50, gave crew chief Alan Gustafson credit for the victory. Under caution on lap 194 of 300, Gustafson kept Martin on the track with a small group of cars that did not pit. On lap 204, Martin passed Kurt Busch for the lead and held the top spot until he pitted on lap 243, earlier than any other top car.
After a cycle of stops that ended when Bobby Labonte pitted from the lead on lap 272, Martin regained the lead and held it for the remainder of the race, despite a spate of late cautions that necessitated three double-file restarts in the final 20 laps.
"Alan won the race," Martin said, after climbing from his car in victory lane. "Alan's the man. This is a dream come true. We still have the lotto at Talladega (Nov. 1), and (I) think we'll run OK at Martinsville. We finished (seventh) in the spring, but I don't run good there - but this is my hardest place. It's a tough place.
"But it's just these guys (the #5 crew). It's Alan and the guys that back him up and all the guys that surround him. He is the superstar today. I can't believe we won that race. It couldn't be easy. We had to have three caution restarts, and all kinds of chances for me to mess up - and I did, but just, I guess, not enough to lose."
Montoya, who climbed seven spots to fourth in the standings, said he was unprepared for a move that Martin made in the first set of corners on the next-to-last lap. The manoeuvre probably cost Montoya second place.