VONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Mark Martin continued to defy his age, becoming the third-oldest winner in NASCAR history with his victory Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.
Martin, who has waffled on retirement several times in the last four years, started from the pole and led 157 of 312 laps. The 50-year-old was out front when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s accident brought out a caution with 11 laps to go, erasing a 4-second lead over Tony Stewart.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson debated with Martin on strategy before the Hendrick Motorsports team called Martin in. Martin won a close race with Kyle Busch off pit road, then Busch was flagged for speeding.
Martin settled into second place behind Ryan Newman, who didn’t pit. Martin shot past Newman on the restart with six laps to go, then cruised to his first win since Kansas at 2005. It snapped a 97-race winless streak.
"No burnouts for me," he radioed his crew. "Just a backward Polish victory lap for my man Alan Kulwicki."
With Stewart right behind him on the restart, Martin said he couldn’t waste any time getting by Newman.
"Tony would race me clean, but he would race me crazy, too, to get a win," Martin said. "I knew I had to go."
The last 50-year-old to win a Cup race was Morgan Shepherd in 1993 at Atlanta. Harry Gant holds the record as the oldest driver to win a Cup race. He was 52 when he won at Michigan in 1992.
Before Martin, only three drivers 50 or older won Cup races: Gant, Shepherd and Bobby Allison.
Martin was visited by NASCAR president Mike Helton and several competitors in Victory Lane, including former boss Jack Roush and former teammates Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
Stewart was second, followed by Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle.
"There’s no shame in losing to a guy like Mark Martin," Stewart said. "I am really happy for Mark. Nobody works harder than Mark to be fit, to stay in shape and be ready to go."
The praise poured in from every corner of the garage for Martin, who is widely considered to be the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a championship.
"The guy has been at the top of his game in the sport for 30 years," said Kurt Busch, who raced with Martin at Roush. "He’s a tremendous athlete, a tremendous individual and he’s definitely going to put together."
That elusive Cup title is what lured him to drive for Rick Hendrick this year for his first full season in three years. He spent the last two years in a part-time ride for Dale Earnhardt Inc., which re-energized him for another grueling 10-month season. After finishing second in the championship race a maddening four times, Hendrick offered him the No. 5 Chevrolet and likely his best – and final – shot at a title.
But his optimism was dashed after horrendous early season luck sabotaged strong cars and dropped Martin to 34th in the standings. His victory pushed five spots from 18th to 13th, and he’s now just nine points out of the final qualifying spot for the Chase for the championship.
"Man, I love driving y’all’s cars," he radioed the crew as he crossed the finish line.
"You were unbelievable, buddy," Gustafson replied. "You were the man."
Martin received a congratulatory phone call in Victory Lane from Hendrick, who wasn’t on hand to see an HMS driver win for the third straight race. Johnson won at Martinsville and Jeff Gordon won at Texas.
"He just congratulated me, man," Martin said of the phone call. "He makes dreams come true."