On a night when cage fighting took center stage, NASCAR's boys put on a fight of their own in suburban Chicago.
In a frantic 17-lap stretch to the finish Saturday, the lead changed hands four times between four different drivers, none of them giving up the top spot without some physicality.
First, Denny Hamlin tossed the bumper of Jimmie Johnson, forcing the three-time defending series champion to slow up. Then it was Hamlin and Brian Vickers battling door-to-door for the lead Johnson had just relinquished. When they touched, Mark Martin, who dominated most of the night, took advantage and the lead.
It was exactly the kind of no-holds-barred action that has turned the world on to mixed martial arts, and it's what NASCAR has been missing lately as drivers seem more concerned with earning points than winning races.
This certainly wasn't the case last weekend, when Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch went fender-to-fender for the win at Daytona. It wasn't again at Chicagoland Speedway, where Martin outlasted the field to win the LifeLock.com 400.
"Man, I don't even remember all the things that happened toward the end of the race," said Martin, who led 195 of 267 laps. "But with 15 to go, I thought we were going to win the race if nothing else happened, but I knew it was going to be a long way. And boy, it was. It was a lot longer than I thought it was going to be, and eventful."
NASCAR has to be ecstatic, because in a time when the racing headlines have been dominated by financial uncertainty, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s continued struggles and the ongoing Jeremy Mayfield drug saga, the product on the track has been undeniably solid. Stewart is providing a stiff challenge to Johnson's three-year reign, Jeff Gordon is back despite a bad back, the first foreign-born driver is probably going to qualify for the Chase (Juan Pablo Montoya) and double-file restarts are producing knockdown donnybrooks as drivers fight for the lead.
"They certainly make things exciting," Johnson said of the double-file restarts. "They give everybody a chance, and when you can group everyone up that close and they can see the front and they know the checkered flag is not far away, the racing just gets really intense. I agree, the racing has been extremely intense."
On top of all of this, a 50-year-old fan favorite has come out of retirement, not because he couldn't let go, but because he's still got it. Martin picked up his series-best fourth win Saturday night, serving notice, ah-gain, that he's a legit contender to win the whole damn thing.
"I said we can win a championship with Mark Martin this year," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "We said that before we started."
It could all go wrong if Martin doesn't make the playoff. Despite his four wins, he sits just 11 points in the clear in the race for the Chase. If Martin were to falter in the final seven races of the regular season, NASCAR would have to explain how the driver who has won more races than anyone is not in the postseason.
For now, though, Martin is in good shape, and so is NASCAR, which could use some momentum heading into Indianapolis in two weeks. No doubt much attention will be given to last year's debacle there, in which NASCAR was forced to throw a caution flag about every 13 laps because the tires wouldn't last any longer than that. That turned one of the marquee events of the season into a joke, so much so that some fans clamored for their money back.
NASCAR and Goodyear have gone to great lengths to make sure that doesn't happen again, and by all driver accounts, the fix has been made.
That's good news, because if drivers are willing to go blow-for-blow to win at an Anywhereville track like Chicagoland Speedway, you can be sure there will be no tapping out in the fight for the checkered flag at Indy.
- Mark Martin