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NASCAR's midlife catharsis


NASCAR's midlife catharsis

Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace aren't ready to give way to NASCAR's young guns just yet

For veteran racers, there's at least one proven way to stave off the young drivers: Just win. Mark Martin, the 46-year-old fan favorite, did just that at the Banquet 400 at the Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9. Mr. Martin took the early lead and held off all challengers, cruising to a victory one week after a disastrous finish in the UAW Ford-500 at Talladega. There, the four-time series runner-up crashed early and finished 41st-almost too far back in the standings to make a push for the Nextel Cup (see below). "That's too far back," Mr. Martin said when scores updated after his Banquet 400 victory only pushed him up to seventh place. "We can go and win us some more and you never know."

By some accounts, Mr. Martin, at 46, shouldn't still be in the running for the Nextel Cup. Heading into the 2005 season, drivers like Carl Edwards (26), Kurt Busch (27), Kyle Busch (20), Brian Vickers (22), and Kasey Kahne (25) not only were supposed to steal away the top sponsors with energetic personas, but also many of the 10 or so playoff spots. But only three 20-somethings-Kurt Busch, Mr. Edwards, and the 27-year-old Ryan Newman-cracked the top 10 while racing fogies like Mr. Martin and 49-year-old Rusty Wallace held off younger foes. In fact, the average age of the 10 Chase contenders in 2005 is 34.3.

But compare Mr. Wallace and Mr. Martin to Kyle Busch, who at 20 equaled both racing legends' eight top 5 finishes in 2005. And while Mr. Busch took home a victory-one more than Mr. Wallace who won no races-he also failed to finish six races. Mr. Martin only bowed out of two. Mr. Wallace posted the only perfect record of finishing races among full-time drivers. Could be there's something still to be said for age before beauty.

Championship Chase

The NASCAR Chase for the Championship confuses just as many casual fans as does college football's Bowl Championship Series. In just its second year, the 10-race playoff for 2005 began Sept. 18 with the Sylvania 300 after seven months of racing across the United States. By the time a Nextel Cup champion is crowned following the Ford 400 on Nov. 20, the best racers from 2005 will have logged up to 4,500 miles on the oval.

Here's how the playoff works: After the first 26 Nextel Cup races, the top 10 points leaders and any others within 400 points of the leader will earn a spot in the Chase for the Championship. With the advent of the postseason comes a reordering of the scores. The points leader heading into the playoffs will start with 5,050 points. The second-place driver will begin with 5,045. Each consecutive driver begins playoff competition with five fewer points than the previous contender. The winner brings home more than $5 million in prize money while each top 10 finisher is guaranteed at least $1 million.

Around the Horn

  • St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz has a broken heart, and it wasn't just from the team's lackluster start. The Rams coach took an indefinite leave of absence when doctors discovered a bacterial infection in his heart tissue. Mr. Martz was initially reluctant to step down and let his body recover from the serious illness, which could require open-heart surgery. Friend and fellow NFL coach Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks said he encouraged Mr. Martz to take time off: "He's got to take care of himself, his family. He's got to think of way more things than football, of winning a football game. But it's hard for us. It's hard for all of us to back away on something like that.'
  • No Yankees, no Red Sox, no problem. This year's American League Championship Series features no Beast from the East (as it had for six of the past seven seasons) and that fact could be directly attributed to pitching. Baseball conventional wisdom dictates that championship teams are based on pitching and defense-both Boston and New York built their regular season success around substantial batting orders. Contrast that with the Ozzie Gullien-managed White Sox, who built around pitching, speed, and defense-traits that almost never take a day off.
  • The U.S. Olympic Committee knows a golden opportunity when it sees it. The American sports governing body said it will petition the International Olympic Committee to reinstate softball as an Olympic sport in 2012-likely another gold for the U.S. team.