BROOKLYN, Mich. — To be the first car across the finish line on Sunday, Mark Martin also had to be the slowest.
How he was able to salvage victory in the face of enormous adversity — including an empty gas tank — is testament to his longevity and experience and the reason, at age 50, Martin may be having the best season of his career.
Everything he has learned in his 27-plus years in the racing was put to the test in capturing a surprising victory in Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
His No. 5 Chevrolet had battery problems.
The fans used to cool him in his driving suit were inoperative most of the race.
Then in the closing laps, Martin worked feverishly to conserve gas while having to watch Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle battle for the win in front of him.
A funny thing happened on the way to the checkered flag. First, Johnson and then Biffle ran out of fuel. And as it appeared Martin would inherit the lead and the victory, his ran out exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
But his momentum still carried him across the finish line first.
"You know, everybody knows that we have had some horrendous luck this year, and it put us pretty far back (in the series standings). We were on the outside looking in to the Chase," said Martin, who is tied with Kyle Busch with the most wins this season (three).
"We had a great race car, but for me, I always, always come up short on the gas mileage thing. I always have."
Sunday, there was reason for Martin's caution.
Even with two wins, he hadn't secured a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. So, while Biffle and Johnson — both with large points cushions — raced hard and risked using up their fuel, Martin held back.
"It was important to me to finish this race. If we were in the top five in points, I would have run out today because I would have went after it. But, you know, we just weren't," Martin said.
"I just had to let them go do their thing. I couldn't save gas and run that pace that they were trying to run both."
After laying in wait, Martin's payoff was big.
Not only did he get his third win, which translates into 30 bonus points when the Chase begins, but Martin jumped five sports in the Sprint Cup standings to eighth and is 61 points ahead of the 13th-place driver, David Reutimann.
"This race was more important to get in the Chase than it was to win the race," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "We could not afford to gamble and fall out and not finish up front and get the points to be in the Chase.
"It would be a shame to have two or three wins and not make that thing."
At this point, Martin's appearance in the 10-race run for the championship is still not secured. But it took a big step toward inevitability on Sunday.
"I feel like that we have some time between now and when the Chase starts, and I certainly think that we need to get stronger if we want to be a contender," Martin said. "But, you know, we have time for that.
"And all you have to do is have 10 great races. You know, you don't have to be the strongest team or the fastest or anything else."
Johnson had the fastest car by far Sunday, leading 146 of the 200 laps. He came out third behind Biffle and Denny Hamlin on the last round of pit stops and retook the lead with six laps remaining. But he ran out of fuel on Lap 199.
"What do you do? We raced hard. We led the most laps," Johnson said. "At a time when it's tough to pass guys on big tracks, we went up there and passed (Martin) and passed (Biffle).
"So on the bright side of things, I'm really happy with the performance we had and we really closed the gap on these guys here at Michigan, but unfortunately we didn't win.
"We'll take our lumps and go to the next one."