NASCAR Martin is now in hunt for title

After placing second Sunday, Mark Martin is a prime contender.
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) -- Mark Martin feels a lot better now than he did seven weeks ago about having a shot at the Nextel Cup title.
After a second-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Martin is only 89 points from joining NASCAR's new "Chase for the Championship." Drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the lead after the 26th race will compete for the title over the last 10 events.
"I don't like it, but you know what, I stand to benefit from it so I'm not going to criticize it at this point because I might be the lucky one," Martin said after the Pennsylvania 500. "This might be the one year that no one ever expected, but that's just the reason why the fans should like it."
He wasn't so optimistic in early June, when a blown engine in the Pocono 500 left Martin feeling as if he had no chance to win his first NASCAR championship.
"We could still make it into the top 10 if they didn't have this cutoff thing at 26 races, but it's done now," Martin said then. "Now we can just forget about points and take them as they come."
Beneficiary of system
Now Martin is one of the biggest beneficiaries of NASCAR's first-year points system that established a playoff-like structure to crown its next champion.
Following the lead of every other pro sport, NASCAR created a scenario to generate fan interest down the stretch and keep drivers such as Martin -- who would have been racing out the string under the old system -- viable for a possible shot at the title.
He not only raced well Sunday, but dropouts of some top-10 drivers caused a dramatic shakeup in the standings. Only points leader and race winner Jimmie Johnson held his position.
Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte and Kurt Busch failed to finish, and injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed a relief driver before his car was black-flagged.
All the scrambling helped Ryan Newman jump from 10th place to eighth, 52 points clear of the final slot. Elliott Sadler also gained two spots, going from eighth to sixth, while Labonte slid from seventh to ninth.
The most progress
But it was those fighting from the outside for the 10th and final spot who made the most progress.
Jeremy Mayfield went from being 106 points behind No. 10 to 40 points back. Kasey Kahne jumped from 162 points behind to 69 and Martin from 192 to 89 out. Dale Jarrett is 14th (103 points behind) and Jamie McMurray 15th (133 points behind).
All five will be within reach of the 10th spot in the next race, the Brickyard 400.
"I want to win the Brickyard next week and if we do that, maybe we'll get there," Martin said.
Of course, while those near the 10 spot love the opportunity, the front-runners could do without the change -- especially Johnson. Under the old system, he would be an overwhelming favorite to win the title. Teammate Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion, is second in the standings, 232 points behind.
"For us, it's not going to be good," said Johnson, who will be awarded a five-point lead should he be in front after the race in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 11. The 10th-place driver will enter the final 10 races 45 points back.
If the Pennsylvania 500 had been the 26th race, Johnson would lose 227 points. Kevin Harvick, now 10th and 620 behind Johnson, would gain 575.
NASCAR's position
NASCAR doesn't care. After all, it changed the system to add some drama to the second half of the season.
Last year, Matt Kenseth rolled to a series-high 25 top-10 finishes, but won only once. Kenseth practically had the title wrapped up in July, leaving little at stake for the other drivers the rest of the way.
Now, when the chase begins Sept. 19 at New Hampshire International Speedway, every race will seem like a post-sesason playoff series for the drivers. One failure to finish could knock them out of contention for good.
Somewhere, NASCAR officials are smiling.
"We've got a legitimate shot to win the championship," Mayfield said. "I've got to thank Nextel and NASCAR for doing this. I think it's going to be great."

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