LOUDON, N.H. - It's been seven years since Mark Martin challenged for a Cup championship. Now he's got his best shot at the title that's so painfully eluded him during his 27-year NASCAR career.
He'll only have to deal with Jimmie Johnson.
And Jeff Gordon.
And Tony Stewart.
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Oh, don't forget Denny Hamlin. Or Juan Pablo Montoya.
The Chase for the Championship begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and Martin starts as the points leader. The sentimental favorite earned the top spot with four victories during an invigorating regular season - matching his victory total from 2000 to 2008.
"This is certainly the best year of my career, the most fun," the 50-year-old driver said. "We'll see how things fare here."
Everyone in contention came to New Hampshire ready to roll, proven by a quick qualifying session Friday that saw Chase drivers claim the first five spots.
Montoya, in his first Chase since moving from Formula One three seasons ago, won the pole with a record-breaking lap in his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. His lap of 133.431 mph bettered Ryan Newman's 2003 record of 133.357.
Two-time series champion Stewart, who built a monstrous points lead that was wiped out when the Chase field was set, qualified second. He was followed by Kurt Busch, winner of the inaugural Chase in 2004; Denny Hamlin, who is coming off last week's victory at his home track of Richmond; and Carl Edwards, a preseason championship favorite.
Martin, who is convinced his car is far better than his qualifying effort - 14th - said Sunday's opener won't give much of an indication of how this Chase will shape up.
"It'll take five races. You're not going to know anything after this race, I'm telling you," Martin said. "You could have a terrible finish and run here and then come back and rebound from it.
"I wouldn't get too carried away about how everything lands in this race."
His opinion is debatable.
Stewart wrecked in the 2004 Chase opener and never recovered. Busch suffered the same fate the next season. Then last year, points leader Kyle Busch had a mechanical problem early in the race that ultimately derailed his title chances.
Then there is Johnson, who finished a career-worst 39th at New Hampshire in 2006, only to rebound and win the first of his three consecutive titles. He's set such an unbelievable pace during his title run that there is little room for anyone else to have the slightest margin for error.
Martin doesn't think it will take that sort of dominance to win this year.
"Nobody is going to beat a 5.0 or 5.5 (average) finish. Anybody that does that for 10 races is going to hold that trophy," he said. "But I'll be surprised if anyone can do that this year with the way it looks like the contenders are. It's going to be a great race between all 12."
And that includes Martin, even though he doesn't want to focus on the championship.
He's finished second four times, most recently when he lost by 38 points to Stewart in 2002.
It's been an up-and-down road since, even though Martin made the Chase in each of its first three seasons. He wasn't a strong contender then, though, and his best finish in this format was fourth, in 2004 and '05.
Worn out in 2007, he scaled back to a partial schedule for two seasons. It was evident as he nearly won the 2007 Daytona 500 that his performance had not missed a beat, and that geared up Martin for a full return this season with Hendrick.
Now, he's having so much fun, there's no clue when he'll quit. He announced a contract extension Friday that will keep him in the car through 2011.
With so many Sundays in front of him, Martin isn't worried about the next 10 weeks and his shot at a championship.
"It's not something that defines my career," he said. "I didn't take this job to win the championship. I took this job to drive a fast race car and hopefully win a race. So what we will do and what I will do is do my very best. I'm a really intense person, I'm really competitive, and I will give every ounce that I have at it just like I do every time."