CHARLOTTE, N.C. - If the first round of the Chase for the championship is any indication, NASCAR is in for a doozy of a title race.
That practice of riding around for a few hundred miles in cruise control before turning it up at the end of the race? There's clearly no time for that now.
The contenders went all-out from the drop of the green flag Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where they were racing three-wide early and gambling on pit strategy to pick up every possible position. The result was an entertaining race that saw Chase drivers take the top four spots and 10 of the top 15.
'I think everyone panics,' said second-place finisher Denny Hamlin. 'When you see at the beginning of the race the top 10, and they're all Chase guys, you're like, 'Man, I've got to fight for every position I can.' Every hole that you see on the race track, you immediately go for.
'Everyone is just jumping at every opportunity that they can, and that's why you see the three wide. Everyone is just trying to make up all the spots they can, and a lot of it has to do with the excitement of the start of the Chase.'
It made for a great opening race, which was won by sentimental favorite Mark Martin in a three-lap sprint to the finish. He used pit strategy to take the lead, then schooled Juan Pablo Montoya with a veteran move that took the former Formula One driver by surprise.
Martin and Montoya share a tremendous amount of respect for each other, and Montoya has consulted Martin numerous times during his transition to stock cars on NASCAR etiquette and how to race different tracks. Despite the many tips Martin has given him, Montoya never expected Martin to pull in front of him on the second of the last three laps and slow his momentum all the way to what Montoya considered a stop.
'He always runs very clean, so I was kind of surprised when he did that,' Montoya said. 'I think you've got to do it to somebody that you trust is not going to knock you out, because I think if I would have done - if the second place guy wasn't me - I think somebody else would have been a little bit more aggressive. But you learn from it.
'It's one of those deals that you've got to do what it takes, and he did.'
Martin, who has repeatedly declared himself one of the world's biggest Montoya fans, said he knew the Colombian would race clean at the end and any contact would be a mistake made by Montoya.
'I know that he's racing for his first oval track win, but I knew he wouldn't slip on purpose,' Martin said. 'I gave him the respect from day one on the race track. I thought that he would do the right thing, and if it didn't turn out to be the right thing, I think it would have been a mistake, not something that he was going to do to try to knock me out of the way or something to get the win. And he could count on the same from me.'
It was clean, intense racing and it gave NASCAR the buzz it needs in a season of sponsor struggles and ratings challenges. A grueling 36-race schedule makes it difficult for the sport to sustain any momentum for long stretches of the season, and it counts on its Chase to liven things up when NASCAR goes head-to-head each weekend with both the NFL and college football.
The Chase has been hit-or-miss since its 2004 inception, with bursts of excitement leading into the first few races that typically peter out as just a handful of drivers stay in championship contention. But a wide-open field has created renewed hope for the sixth edition of the Chase, and NASCAR needs to figure a way to find nine more repeats of New Hampshire.
Double-file restarts, implemented earlier this season after they successfully spiced up the All-Star race, have helped tremendously. It put Montoya next to Martin on that final restart, with hard-charging Hamlin right behind them.
It puts the leaders at the front of the pack every time, turning up the heat on every driver to grab as many positions as possible during what's become a harried few laps of racing.
Martin, who rarely makes mistakes, was impressed with the intensity and driver skill.
'It's really tough, because on restarts these things really slip around,' Martin said. 'I really gotta brag on the drivers - they did an awesome job and did a better job than usual not running over each other because it's very, very hard. And when you have as much at stake as we have, you know, it pushes you to slip over the edge.'