LOUDON, N.H. — Mark Martin held off Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya on a late frantic restart to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It was Martin’s series-best fifth victory of the season and spoiled what could have been a blockbuster day for Montoya. Making his 100th career start on his 34th birthday, Montoya won the pole in record-breaking speed and led every practice session while setting the stage for just his second career Sprint Cup Series victory.
Instead, Martin used pit strategy to move to the front and take the lead, forcing Montoya, who led a race-high 104 laps, to chase him down.
“I fought for this race,” Martin said. “Pinch me. I am sure I’m sleeping. I am sure I am dreaming. This is my hardest place, a tough place.”
Montoya came up short in a three-lap sprint to the finish, which ended under caution when AJ Allmendinger wrecked on the final lap.
NASCAR said Denny Hamlin was ahead of Montoya when the caution came out, and Hamlin was given second-place in the finishing order. Montoya was awarded third place.
Three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was fourth, and Kyle Busch, who missed making the Chase by just eight points, rounded out the top five. But the left front of his car was too low in post-race inspection, and he could be penalized this week.
Kurt Busch was sixth and followed by Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, defending race winner Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.
It was a decent day for almost all the Chase drivers, who need a strong race in the 10-race title hunt to set the pace for the championship battle. Since its 2004 inception, only one driver, Johnson in 2006, finished lower than sixth at New Hampshire and still won the title.
That’s bad news for Kasey Kahne, who lost his motor early and finished 39th. He was posting to his Twitter account about his crummy day from his airplane as he prepared to head home before the halfway point of the race.
After just one race, Kahne is last in the 12-driver field and 161 points behind Martin, the leader. Considered the best driver in NASCAR without a championship, the 50-year-old is poised to finally grab one.
Martin, who announced a contract extension Friday that keeps him with Hendrick Motorsports through 2011, started the Chase as the points leader because of his four “regular season” victories. Now he’s got another win and a 35-point cushion over the competition.
Hamlin and Johnson are tied for second in the standings, and Montoya jumped seven spots to fourth in the standings, 55 points back.
Montoya wasn’t pleased with how Martin raced him in the final three-lap sprint, complaining that the veteran stopped his car to hold him up at the start of the second lap.
“What he did, not cool at all. I could have wrecked him,” Montoya radioed his crew after the finish.
“He knows we’re here. He knows,” crew chief Brian Pattie replied. “This will give them something to talk about for the next week.”