- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

LOUDON, N.H. | It has been seven years since Mark Martin legitimately challenged for the championship. Now he has his best shot at the title that has so painfully eluded him through 27 years in NASCAR.

He’ll only have to deal with Jimmie Johnson.

And Jeff Gordon.

And Tony Stewart.

Oh, don’t forget Denny Hamlin. And Juan Pablo Montoya.

The tightest Chase for the championship since its 2004 inception begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and Martin starts as the points leader. The sentimental favorite earned the top spot with four victories during an invigorating “regular season” that saw him match in 26 races his entire win total from 2000 to 2008.

“This is certainly the best year of my career, the most fun,” the 50-year-old said. “We’ll see how things fare here. Anybody in this Chase can win it. Every team that’s in it is capable of putting together a 10-race row. That’s all it takes is the magic 10 races, and anybody can win it.”

Everyone in contention came to New Hampshire ready to roll, proven by a quick qualifying session Friday that saw Chase drivers claim the first five spots.

Montoya, in his first Chase since moving from Formula One three seasons ago, won the pole with a record-breaking lap in his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. His lap of 133.431 mph bested Ryan Newman’s 2003 record of 133.357 and gave him the front-row starting spot.

Two-time series champion Stewart, who built a monstrous points lead that was wiped out when the Chase field was set this week, qualified second. He was followed by Kurt Busch, winner of the 2004 inaugural Chase, Denny Hamlin, who is still riding high from last week’s victory at hometrack Richmond, and Carl Edwards, the preseason favorite.

Four-time series champion Gordon qualified 10th, and Kasey Kahne was 11th. Three spots back was Martin, who qualified a disappointing 14th. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, three-time defending champion Johnson, was 16th.

Newman was 18th, Greg Biffle was 22nd and Brian Vickers, who raced his way into the field last weekend at Richmond, was the worst of the Chase qualifiers at 26th.

But Martin, who is convinced his car is far better than his qualifying effort, said Sunday’s opener won’t give much of an indication of how this Chase will shape up.

“It’ll take five races,” he said, “You’re not going to know anything after this race.”

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