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Monday, September 14, 2009

Chase field Set for Sprint Cup March to Miami Championship

Mark Martin Leads the Top 12 Seeking a Cup Championship in Miami, Montoya Makes NASCAR History. Diversity growing in NASCAR Fan favorite Martin, who has finished runner-up to the Champion four times, has his eyes on Sprint Cup’s biggest prize, to be crowned Nov. 22 in Miami.

For the sixth time this season, Mark Martin claimed the pole position in the No. 5 Chevrolet for the race at Richmond. Martin's pole was his 47th of his illustrious career and the fourth time he has grabbed the top starting spot at Richmond International Raceway.

“I didn't really expect to sit on the pole. I hoped to be fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth; in that range,” said Martin after qualifying at Richmond. “But we got a stellar lap with a stellar race car."

With a fourth-place finish at Race 26 in Richmond, Florida resident Mark Martin not only qualified for NASCAR’s Chase “playoffs” with a spot among the Top 12 drivers, but he’ll lead that pack on the merit of his Sprint Cup-leading four victories thus far in 2009. The 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship kicks in Sept. 20 at New Hampshire and will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway when a Champion is crowned Nov. 22.

“It was really good to be in the Top 5 all night,” said Martin. “We had a great race car and we did what we needed to do. The pressure’s off.”

The four wins Martin has entering the 10-race shootout tied him with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, but Martin will lead the field with the No. 1 seed based on points standings through the first 26 races.

“We're the points leader, that's cool,” Martin said recently. “But it will be a lot cooler to be the points leader after Miami, you know? It's not how you start the Chase, it's how you finish it. We just have to go in every weekend on top of our game, ready to fight and ready to win races."

Martin had some work to do before getting in the Chase. He sat 10th in the Championship standings heading into Richmond but just 69 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers. And only the Top 12 qualify to race for the NASCAR Championship, to be decided Nov. 22.

“Anybody in the Chase can win this thing and you better watch out for Juan Montoya,” said Martin.

Martin was mentally prepared if he failed to make the Chase, but the veteran driver has been through plenty of disappointment before in a career that has seen him finish second in the championship four times.

“I wanted this team to make it,” Martin said. “Not so much for me, but for Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] and Rick [Hendrick, team owner] and all the guys at Hendrick Motorsports. Look, they have given me a season that was beyond my wildest dreams. I hoped I would win a race—one race. And I have gotten four of them.”

Miami resident Juan Pablo Montoya made NASCAR history by becoming the first non-U.S. born driver to qualify for the Sprint Cup playoffs, to culminate on his “home” track of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

One race to make the Chase. One race to qualify for a run for the Sprint Cup Championship. One race to make the Championship finale matter on his “home track."

And Juan Pablo Montoya did it. With a 19th-place finish at Race 26 in Richmond, the Miami resident qualified for NASCAR’s Chase “playoffs” with a spot among the Top 12 drivers. In doing so, he made NASCAR history as the first non-U.S. born driver to make NASCAR’s “playoff” system.

No more “mulligans”—a poor result at Richmond would have spelled the end for a driver who held a not-completely safe 88-point lead on the No. 13 points position heading into Race 26. At Richmond, drivers still were vying for one of eight spots not yet claimed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s playoffs.”

“In a way today seems kind of weird because we ran so conservative, it’s kind of awkward,” said Montoya. “It’s good because we’re in.”

The Miami resident entered the race needing an 18th-place finish or better to secure his bid for the Sprint Cup Championship, to be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22. This was the last chance for drivers who found themselves on the bubble to become eligible for a run at a NASCAR’s top-tier Championship. The Chase features 12 drivers in a 10-race shootout to decide a Champion to be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22.

It was clear by watching Montoya that the real racing to watch at Richmond was the battle for those final eight Chase spots. Heading into Richmond—the final race before the field was set for NASCAR's post-season—just 122 points separated fifth-place Carl Edwards (3,162) and 14th-place Kyle Busch (3,040). Montoya entered the race just 88 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers. And the former IndyCar and Formula One star from Bogota, Colombia, knew what had to be done to secure his first Chase—and NASCAR history.

“It feels good to prove everyone wrong. This is bigger than winning any race,” said Montoya.

The Chase field is set heading to Round 1 at New Hampshire on Sunday (photo courtesy: Chris Graythen, Getty Images Sport)

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