Mark Martin Wins Devilbiss 400 from Two laps Down
18 August 1997BROOKLYN, MI -- Some days the road to victory lane looks rather straight forward - an obtainable goal. Some days perhaps even a cake walk - that may have been how Mark Martin felt on lap 85. But what a difference a lap can make. A cut tire, a jog towards the wall, a painfully long trip back to pit road. When all was said and done Martin - who had, just moments before, a three second lead on the field was now 2 laps down driving an unknown machine hoping to salvage the day with something respectable. Martin dug in and went into 'points mode'. When the checkers flew it was Mark Martin, in the Valvoline Ford that got the win.
Martin started his day on the outside pole but didn't stay there too terribly long. It was after pole sitter Johnny Benson, driving the Pennzoil Pontiac and Ricky Craven, who started third, got done teaching each other who was boss in the first few laps that Martin charged and showed the beleaguered field just how stout the Roush prepared Ford would be. Martin grabbed the lead on lap 12 - a position he would hold on to until lap 48 when his thirsty 'Bird would need a drink.
It was during this time that those who were going to try to stretch their fuel did a few extra laps trying to make the 400 mile event a three pit stop affair. This is when Bobby Labonte, a past winner at Michigan Speedway using fuel management, got the lead for several laps until he dove for fuel and fresh tires on lap 50.
When the green flag stops cycled Jeff Burton was in the lead due to a quick pit stop. He didn't stay there long as Martin sailed past to regain the lead on lap 55.
Martin just drove away from the field. The only one even remotely able to keep up was Burton but an approximate 4 second lead showed just how strong Martin was. Everything was just fine for Martin - that is until he entered turn one on lap 86.
Martin was closing in on Robby Gordon, looking to put him a lap down when the left rear tire let go on. The back end of Martin's car yawed hard right and from all appearances it looked like it would be a trip to the wall for the Valvoline Thunderbird. Somehow, Martin miraculously saved it and got off the power trying to save his ride. That is when his car snapped back the other way - but Martin again saved it.
Talking about the incident Martin said, "I was extremely busy. I didn't have a chance to be disappointed. If I spent any time being disappointed I'd of stacked it in the wall. My first response was to hold on to the thing. I got it down to under a hundred miles per hour and I thought you ought to be able to drive one of these things that slow if the wheel fell off. But I still almost lost it."
Martin's problems weren't over as he had to limp back to pit road losing even more valuable track time. His team hopped the wall and started to change the tire when they found what was left of the blow tire wrapped around the axel. The damage extended to the crush panels and the cool air recirculator that provides fresh air to the driver.
Martin, now two laps down, stopped several times getting as much damage repaired as he could under the green.
Martin was not at all bullish on his chances -- "I didn't think we could come back. We were pretty far behind," remarked Martin.
Martin, now on fresh tires started his march back towards the front. "I went to work," stated Martin. "I went into points racing mode." That is just what pilot of the Roush Thunderbird did as he made some rather bold moves jerking his Ford around the slower traffic that was between him and the point.
Martin picked up one of his lost laps around lap 100 when the others started to stop for fuel and tires. Martin just kept driving the wheels off if it trying to make up more lost ground.
Then the break that Martin would need came on lap 105. The field, being lead by Martin's teammate Jeff Burton, was coming to take the one of two cautions for rain. Martin had it mashed trying to get up to and past Jeff Burton. Burton, who had a good lead over second place, rolled out of the gas and Martin shot past and got his lap back. He was now the last car on the lead lap - in 16th position.
It was during this seven lap caution that Martin got the remainder of the work done on his ride. When the green flew Martin was whole again and started his charge towards the front.
The caution flew again for rain on lap 124 - this time it would stay out for 33 laps - presenting the teams with a decision to make. Give up track position or stay out and hope for rain. Slowly and towards the end of this extended caution most stoped for their last service of the day. Geoff Bodine was the lone ranger that stayed out and took the field to green on lap 158.
Bodine didn't stand much of a chance as those who had plenty of fuel and fresh tires started sailing past him. First it was Craven then Musgrave then Jeff Gordon - all the while Martin was inching his way to the front.
Martin got to the leader, Jeff Gordon, chucked a move on him coming out of turn two and went on by for the lead on lap 169. Once there he drove like it was the last lap and he was 15 positions from the front. Martin soon had his 3 second lead on the field - which shrunk to 2.009 seconds when the checkers fell. Martin was followed across the line by Jeff Gordon, Ted Musgrave, and Yates teammates Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett on his way to his $93,045 pay day.
Martin serving notice to the rainbow warriors said, "We only gained ten points on those guys (the #24 team). We're going to have to do better than that. What we really need to do is to turn up the heat. We did it a bit today, but what we have to do is come back and do it again at Bristol and Darlington.. If we can do this a few more weeks, and put this kind of heat on, we can get this thing stirred up pretty good."
Jeff Gordon said of his second place finish, "I think Mark was pretty much toying with us. Once he got out front, he pretty much had control of the race. Today was a big day for us. As dominant as Martin was, he only gained ten points on us. We're just glad to get out of here with a strong second."
The Ford's, that took a NASCAR mandated spoiler hit before the weekend started, occupied four of the top-five spots leading the Chevrolet contingent to scream foul. Larry McReynolds, crew chief of the Earnhardt ride said, "It was a pretty bad day for Chevrolet, but a Chevrolet did finish second. We can't cry too loudly."
The race took 3 hours 9 minutes 9 seconds to complete and with the cautions for the rain had a slow 126.88 mile per hour average speed. There were 19 lead changes among 8 drivers.
The next Winston Cup event will be the Goody's 500 to be run under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway August 23rd.
Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel