Mark Martin said he needed a break in his bid for his first Winston Cup title. He got one Sunday, although it remains to be seen whether it will be big enough.
Starting on the outside of the front row in the UAW-GM Quality 500, Martin put on a dominating show at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading the most laps on the way to his seventh victory of the year.It came on a day when Gordon battled handling problems over the last third of the 334-lap race and wound up nearly one-half lap back in fifth. It was Gordon's 15th consecutive top-five finish, a streak that stretches back to April.
The net effect was that Gordon, who came to Charlotte 199 points ahead of Martin atop the season standings, saw his lead cut to 174 with five races left. Gordon, seeking his third championship in four years, can wrap up the crown by finishing fifth or better in the remaining events.
"We were lucky," said Martin, who last month got firsthand evidence of how quickly a points chase can turn when he lost 140 points to Gordon at Darlington, S.C.
Martin led six times for 215 laps on what turned out to be a long afternoon of racing on Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked trioval.
The event was slowed by 11 caution flags, and a broken sewer line near the speedway resulted in a backup that produced a stream of water flowing down the backstretch, causing the race to be red-flagged for 42 minutes. The result was the race took nearly five hours to complete, and track officials turned on the facility's lights for the final 70-plus laps.
Martin's victory highlighted a banner day for Roush Racing, which had four of the top eight finishers. Jeff Burton was third, Kevin Lepage finished sixth and Chad Little wound up eighth.
Ward Burton was second, his best finish in nearly three years. But he crossed the finish line about 150 yards behind Martin, who led the final 66 laps and 133 of the last 134.
"We beat everybody but one car, and I wanted that one car bad," Burton said. "But it's a good start."
After his 29th career victory, Martin wondered if there might have been a different outcome if not for the biggest crash of the day, an 11-car pileup on lap 203. No one was injured, but several contenders were eliminated.
"There were a lot of cars that could have had a chance today," said Martin, who was immediately in front of the crash.
The race had just gone back to green after a caution, so the field was bunched and running two-wide when Bobby Labonte went into a violent slide in the first turn. By the time the melee ended, the disabled included the top-10 cars of Labonte, older brother Terry, Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner.
"It wasn't their fault," Bobby Labonte said. "It was mine."
Gordon, who was running just behind Labonte at the time, had minor damage to his left rear end, but his car didn't handle nearly as well the rest of the way. He led four times for 47 laps early in the race, but after the wreck he never got near the front again.