BRISTOL, Tenn. — Mark Martin never has been a dirty racer.
With trophies on the line, or points, or a spot in the season-defining Chase for the championship, he has prided himself on being a clean driver though 1,000 NASCAR races. So as a sold-out crowd watched to see if Martin would lay a bumper to Kyle Busch in the closing laps at Bristol Motor Speedway, it never even crossed his mind.
“We’re racing, going for it, you know?” Martin said. “I expect Kyle to race me hard. I expect him to race me clean. And he has. He can expect the same from me. I didn’t need to use the bumper. Kyle gave me all the room in the world to make that pass, and I didn’t make it.”
There were no last-lap fireworks Saturday night as Busch and Martin staged a side-by-side charge to the checkered flag.
Racing that hard could have been disastrous for both: Martin is clinging to a spot in the 12-driver Chase field, and Busch is fighting to get back into contention. Both drivers were in desperate need of a solid finish, and one small slip could have sunk their seasons.
Instead, they raced clean and Busch emerged the winner, with Martin second. The victory snapped Busch’s 13-race Sprint Cup Series winless streak — an eternity by his standards. The two are tied with a series-best four wins apiece.
“Man, what an honorable race-car driver Mark Martin is,” Busch said. “Such an honor to race with him. To give him the room that he needed, for him to give me the room I needed, was awesome. I can’t thank him enough. He didn’t let me win the race, but he certainly didn’t take it from us.”
Just like that, two of the biggest stories of 2009 prevented their seasons from slipping away.
Busch, the hottest driver last season, had lost his way lately and was struggling to rein in his passion for winning. Down to 15th in the standings, he was unable to afford one more mistake or risk the knockout punch to his title chances.
Martin, on the other hand, never wanted to make this year about winning the title that has eluded him the past 27 seasons. He returned to full-time racing, he said, to have fun and work with a Hendrick Motorsports team that was determined to get him back to Victory Lane.
So when bad breaks the first four races dropped him to 34th in the standings, winning the championship became the last thing on his mind.
Yet there they were Saturday, running first and second the final 50-plus laps. They lined up side-by-side on several late restarts, and Busch got the jump each time. With one final four-lap sprint, it could have been anything goes at Bristol.
The tiny bullring has seen its share of drama before — the late Dale Earnhardt bumped Terry Labonte out of his way in 1999, and Jeff Gordon used a bump-and-run on Rusty Wallace in 2002 — and Busch and Martin could have created some more.
But that would have been foolish in the big picture.
Martin, who was clinging to a 12-point hold on the final Chase position, left Bristol up two spots to 10th. Busch also moved up two spots, to 13th, and is 34 points from the final qualifying position with two races remaining to determine the field.
“We’re trying to make the Chase,” Busch said. “We’ve been clawing at it for the past five weeks just trying to get back up there and make it in.”
Martin didn’t share that goal until his No. 5 team showed such muscle and determination to get him a chance at the championship. Now that it’s close, he wants it — even if he won’t admit it. He gained 48 points in the standings Saturday and said afterward “it’s not enough.”
“I really, really would be a lot more comfortable with 150,” he said. “We will be fine if we finish how we run, absolutely. But, you know, I don’t have the greatest of confidence that the things we can’t control are going to be kind to us because we haven’t had an average year for those things. It hasn’t been average.
“But if it comes down to just flat out racing, and not a bunch of cautions and crashes and flat tires … if we can just go out and race for it, it’s going to be great.”
Especially if there’s more finishes like Saturday’s.