Published Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 2:57 p.m.
Updated Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 4:47 p.m.
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Mark Martin led for exactly one lap during the Sam’s Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday.
Luckily for Martin, it was the only one that mattered. The 52-year old Martin capitalized on a day full of momentum swings at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to win his fifth NASCAR event on the track.
“I don’t remember the circumstances of the other wins, but we ran really strong,” Martin said. “Today was a culmination of strategy and experience. It was a lot of things.”
Martin took advantage of every opportunity placed in front of him, with the most notable one coming on the final lap of the day. Brad Keselowski had led the previous 11 laps and looked poised to win his 13th career race on the Nationwide Series.
But Keselowski blew a tire around the first turn of the final lap and hit the wall, which allowed Martin to pass him.
“I must have run over something because the tire went down quick,” Keselowski said. “I’m sure I ran over something. It’s just one of those days where you do everything right and don’t win. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Justin Allgaier also passed Keselowski to finish in second and 1.221 seconds behind Martin. The driver behind Keselowski provided the day’s most notable finish — Danica Patrick.
Patrick’s fourth-place finish was her career best in 16 NASCAR races. It was also the highest finish ever by a female in NASCAR, surpassing a record that stood for 61 years by Sara Christian.
“I don’t think about the highest position for a female,” Patrick said. “I think about winning the race. If I make history, then so be it.”
Patrick spent less time on pit road than any driver. She gradually improved her starting position of 22nd throughout the afternoon before making a push for the win late.
She managed to overtake Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne and pole-sitter Carl Edwards, who finished in fifth and sixth, respectively.
“It was a good day,” Patrick said. “We had a good car. I knew it from the beginning of the race once we settled in for a couple of laps.”
It was the third impressive performance from Patrick in three races this year. She came in 14th at Daytona and 17th last week in Phoenix.
Martin said Patrick’s improvement of late was “fantastic.” Then again, he had his own accomplishment to be proud of.
“I’ve lost a lot of races the same way this one turned out good for us,” Martin said. “I can’t gloat. If Brad hadn’t had a tire problem, it looked to me that he was going to win.”
Keselowski’s stroke of misfortune was the final in a race that contained plenty of them. Las Vegas native Kyle Busch, who won last week’s Nationwide race at Phoenix, spent the most time at the front of the pack.
He led most of the beginning of the race and 84 laps in total. But after falling behind, Busch went for an aggressive move to go underneath Keselowski on lap 132.
Keselowski blocked it off, which sent Busch crashing into the infield grass and eventually the wall.
“Unfortunately, I screwed up,” Busch said. “That’s why I run these races, so I can learn and not do it tomorrow.”
Martin will attempt to become the first driver since Jeff Burton in 2000 to win both Las Vegas’ annual races on NASCAR weekend when the Kobalt Tools 400 runs Sunday.
He won Las Vegas’ inaugural Sprint Cup race in 1998 and took the Nationwide title here in 1999, 2005 and 2008. Friday’s victory was Martin’s 49th in the Nationwide Series and 96th overall in NASCAR.
“It worked out for us today,” Martin said. “It was a great team effort. It was a real special win.”