By Mike Harris
AP Auto Racing Writer
HAMPTON, Ga. — Even Mark Martin is feeling optimistic these days.
The longtime NASCAR star heads into Sunday’s Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway seventh in the season standings, 96 points behind leader Matt Kenseth with four races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
“If you look at it historically — last year and the year before — we were about twice as far back as we are and we finished fourth in both of those,” Martin said Friday as a steady rain washed out Cup qualifying. “So, certainly you can look at it from a lot of directions and still find the positive in it.”
If Martin, NASCAR’s resident pessimist, can find a silver lining in being seventh at this point, it truly still is a wide-open championship.
Because of Friday’s rain, the lineup was determined by season points and all 10 drivers in the Chase will start at the front of the field. As close as it is, under the right circumstances, any one of the top nine could be leading the points after Sunday’s Bass Pro Shops 500.
Ninth-place Jeff Gordon trails Kenseth by 141 points and it is mathematically possible — though unlikely — to gain 156 points in a single race.
Still, with four races left in the 10-race Chase, that seems like plenty of time to make up the deficit — if the other drivers run into some bad luck.
“We’re not out of the championship hunt like I originally thought after Charlotte,” said Gordon, who found himself 10th, 216 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton after an engine failure relegated him to a 24th-place finish two weeks ago.
“But it’s still going to be tough,” he added. “We’re only 141 out of the lead, which is manageable. What’s tough is the fact there are eight guys ahead of us in the standings and it will be difficult to leapfrog them with only four races remaining. We can’t control what they do, so we’ll just focus on trying to win races.”
Jimmie Johnson, making a charge after getting off to a slow start in the Chase, is the consensus favorite among the contenders after winning last Sunday at Martinsville and climbing to third, just 41 points behind the leader.
“I really feel like we’re back in this thing,” Johnson said. “I never felt we were out of it, but we’re really close in the points now after the way Martinsville worked out for us. But I don’t know what to expect in these next four races. I’m just going to go racing.”
Kasey Kahne, just ahead of Gordon in the standings and 99 points behind Kenseth, is perhaps the most surprised to still be in Chase contention after some early mishaps that left him 10th, 273 points behind Burton after the third race of the stock car playoffs.
“To come from where we were all the way to 99 (points behind) with four races to go is pretty impressive for my team,” said Kahne, who won on Atlanta’s 1.5-mile oval in March and leads the series with six victories this season.
Johnson was eighth, 156 points behind Burton, after crashing on the final lap at Talladega, the fourth race of the Chase. At that point, he says he expected somebody to take charge and pull away.
Asked if he is surprised by the closeness of the title battle at this point, Johnson said, “I am really shocked at that. I think all of us are.
“Obviously, with the slow start we had, I’m happy about it. We’ve been knocking on the door for a championship for five seasons now and, hopefully, this will be the year for us.
“It is a four-race Chase to the end now,” Johnson added. “Obviously, the one thing that none of us have had so far is consistency. I think whoever can string together four good races at this point is going to be the champion.”
Martin said the pressure is going to mount on everyone as the Chase goes down to the season finale at Homestead. But, with this being his final full season in Cup and very likely his final shot at a championship, Martin actually feels good about his chances.
“I’ve told everybody that I was going to have fun with this thing, no matter what, and that’s where I’m at right now,” the four-time series runner-up said.
“I’m not stressed out about whether or not we will win this championship,” Martin added. “But I am focused on getting the job done every week, and so is my team. And I’m really happy to be a part of it.”