Leader, Leader: Who wants to be the Leader?

Leader, Leader: Who wants to be the Leader?

Let's see ... suppose NASCAR gave away big bucks for winning the Winston Cup championship but nobody wanted to win it. Strange and unrealistic, you think? Well, I'll give you unrealistic but it's been a strange season as one might think no one ...

Let's see ... suppose NASCAR gave away big bucks for winning the Winston Cup championship but nobody wanted to win it. Strange and unrealistic, you think? Well, I'll give you unrealistic but it's been a strange season as one might think no one wanted to win the crown.

Look first at Sterling Marlin. He took the lead at Daytona and held it for most of the season until he moved backwards far enough, he finally caught up with the rest of the field.

Sterling Marlin.
Photo by Thomas Chemris.

Then Mark Martin became King of the Hill and with it, his best chance at winning the Winston Cup championship since 1990. But then came Martin's turn at a string of bad luck - a string that continued Sunday at Kansas Speedway as Martin has now backed himself out of the points lead. The result: a newcomer, in more ways than one, sits atop the NASCAR Winston Cup leader board as rookie Jimmie Johnson took over the lead ... err, you could almost say he backed his way to the top spot, not taking anything away from his performance.

Martin entered the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway leading the field in what is one of the tightest points battles in NASCAR history - and not just between the top two drivers, either. Johnson was second, just 30 points behind Martin. All that changed on Sunday but it was the way it changed that was exciting.

Mark Martin.
Photo by Autostock.

Johnson qualified on the outside of the first row, while Martin started ninth. For most of the race, it looked like Johnson would easily take the points lead. Johnson ran up front, mostly in the top 10, while Martin, on the other hand, fell backwards and struggled in the back half of the field.

About midway through the race, Martin had fought his way back up into the top 15, and it didn't look quite so bad for the points leader, although Johnson was still running in the top five. Then on lap 171, Johnson cut a right rear tire, did a nice job of keeping the car off the wall and was forced him to make a green flag pit stop. When he returned to the action, he was running 23rd, the first car one lap down.

This gave Martin a reprieve, a chance to protect and expand his lead over Johnson. But for Mark, it just wasn't meant to be on this sunny, windy day in Kansas as he blew the engine with 17 laps to go, knocking him from a sure top-10 finish.

"We were looking at a real sweet finish there, but we couldn't make it all the way," Martin said. "It just made up its mind that it wasn't gonna go that far and it didn't."

Martin ended up 25th in the race and fell to second in the standings, 11 points behind new leader Johnson, who finished 10th, still the first car a lap down.

Jimmie Johnson does a doughnut.
Photo by Greg Gage.

"Unfortunately we had a flat tire, it cost us and we got down. We had a great racecar and a great team and we weren't gonna let it get us down," Johnson said.

Thus, another chapter in the saga of "Who wants to win the Winston Cup championship?" is now complete. The result was another massive shakeup in the wildest points race in the sport's 53-year history. But the shuffle wasn't just between first and second places.

Tony Stewart, who finished eighth Sunday, and event winner Jeff Gordon also made big gains in points Sunday. Stewart remained in third, 36 points behind Johnson. With his win, Gordon moved from fifth to fourth, 109 points behind his Hendrick Racing teammate as he tries to defend his Winston Cup title.

Marlin, the points leader until four races ago, crashed on lap 148 and finished 33rd. He slipped to fifth in points, 121 points behind the leader.

While Marlin is fading, Rusty Wallace moved up to sixth, 137 points behind Johnson, after a third-place finish. Wallace's rookie teammate Ryan Newman is seventh, 154 points out of first. Newman finished second Sunday, his second straight runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway.

Matt Kenseth, who leads the series with four victories this year, was seventh at Kansas and is now eighth in points, 193 behind.

Veteran Bill Elliott was fifth at Kansas and is ninth overall, 201 points behind the leader.

After Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, a championship race that already was the closest among the largest number of drivers, has gotten even closer. A rookie has never won a Winston Cup championship before but a rookie is currently the Leader of the Pack. But the real question now becomes ... for how long???

"It's been a bad place to be, leading points these days, everybody keeps having trouble," Johnson said. "Hopefully we can take it and hang on to it."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin