In last week's column, I wrote about the excitement headed into the first race of the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That race, the Sylvania 300, ended with Mark Martin standing in victory lane -- a familiar scene that NASCAR fans have witnessed a whopping five times this season.

Martin's win tied Harry Gant's record for single-season victories by a driver over 50 years of age. But more importantly, it kept the veteran driver atop the standings after starting the Chase as the top seed. Martin is trying to win his first championship after a career full of "almosts." He has finished as series runner-up a frustrating four times.

Preparing for this weekend's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, Martin looks to be in great shape at the steeply-banked Delaware oval. He has four Dover victories, tied with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Bill Elliott for the series high among active drivers.

Speaking of Gordon, his title hopes took a nasty hit at New Hampshire. His ill-handling car never came to him. He finished a respectable 14th, but dropped from sixth to 10th in the Chase standings because six of the top seven finishers were Chase drivers. Gordon has been strong at Dover, however, and this could be the week that his team steps up to get him into victory lane.
But that won't happen if teammate Jimmie Johnson has anything to say about it. Johnson also has four wins at Dover, and he shows no signs of easing up on his competition. Johnson finished fourth at New Hampshire and moved up from third to second in the Chase standings.


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On a mission to be the first driver ever to win four consecutive Cup championships, look for Johnson to continue to run strong throughout the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, a native of the Richmond, Va., area, finally made it to victory lane at his home track in the last race to make the Chase. Then Hamlin followed the win with a strong run at New Hampshire, finishing second to Martin and moving up to third in the Chase standings. He had the most points of any driver in the "Race to the Chase" -- the 10 races that precede the Chase. But he may have trouble at Dover -- statistically, it's one of his worst tracks.

Juan Pablo Montoya has been the biggest surprise of the season. In this, his third year in NASCAR, he became the first international driver ever to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Then he qualified on the pole at New Hampshire, and parlayed the great start into a third-place finish. That vaulted Montoya from 11th to fourth place in the standings, the biggest leap of any Chase driver.

Will "The Monster Mile" live up to its name Sunday?

Look for thrills and chills aplenty.

Ellen Siska writes about NASCAR for The York Dispatch. She can be reached at esiska@yorkdispatch.com.