AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Mark Martin continued to defy his age, becoming the first 50-year-old driver to win a Sprint Cup race in 16 years with a victory Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.

Martin, who has waffled on retirement several times in the last four years, started from the pole and led 157 of 312 laps. He was out front when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s accident brought out a caution with 11 laps to go, erasing a 4-second lead he held over Tony Stewart.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson debated with Martin on strategy before the Hendrick Motorsports team called Martin in. He won a close race with Kyle Busch off pit road, then Busch was flagged for speeding.

Martin settled into second place behind Ryan Newman, who didn’t pit. Martin then shot past Newman on the restart with six laps to go, then cruised to his first win since Kansas at 2005.

“No burnouts for me,” he radioed his crew. “Just a backward Polish victory lap for my man Alan Kulwicki.”

The last 50-year-old to win a Cup race was Morgan Shepherd in 1993 at Atlanta. Harry Gant holds the record as the oldest driver to win a Cup race. He was 52 when he won at Michigan in 1992.

Before Martin, only three drivers 50 or older ever won Cup races: Gant, Shepherd and Bobby Allison.

Martin was visited by several competitors in Victory Lane, including former boss Jack Roush and former teammates Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth.

Stewart was second, followed by Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle.

Earnhardt goes from bad to good to worse

The early and late portions of the race were awful for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Saturday night in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

In between, he led for 63 laps.

With two top- 10 finishes this year, Earnhardt had high hopes coming in to Phoenix, where he had won twice (2003, 2004).

But things went from bad to worse in a hurry.

When he came out from the first pit stop, loose lug nuts forced him back in the pits again, and left him struggling in 28th place.

There were early problems with his Chevrolet, too. On turn two less than halfway into the race, he went into a wild sideways skid. Virtually the entire field passed him and he languished in 36th place.

But the car got better as the sun went down, and while the rest of the field went to the pits during a caution flag, Earnhardt took the lead and even pulled away from the cars that had been faster earlier.

Earnhardt led for 52 laps. Tony Stewart passed Earnhardt on lap 220 – out of 312. After the field made pit stops under a green flag, Earnhardt had the lead again, this time for 11 laps.

Mark Martin passed him on lap 256.

Earnhardt needed a late caution flag to allow him a final pit stop without losing more ground. He never got one.

In need of new tires, Earnhardt steadily fell back. Ten laps from the finish, Casey Mears’ car nudged Earnhardt’s into a spin. Earnhardt’s Chevy hit the wall. His night was over.

Jeff’s penalty

A mistake by Jeff Gordon’s pit crew cost him dearly.

Gordon came in for a pit stop with 89 laps to go. He got four tires and a major track-bar adjustment in a 16.3-second stop. The crew rushed a little too fast.

He was forced back in the pits for a penalty two laps later for leaving pit row without a lug nut on his left front.

Roush decision

Roush-Fenway Racing must drop a team at the end of this season to meet NASCAR’s four-car mandate, but team owner Jack Roush is adamant he has not decided how he’ll meet the cap.

Jamie McMurray is the only one of the five Roush drivers in a contract year, leading many to speculate Roush will dump the No. 26 team at the end of the season. Roush, who spent the weekend in Phoenix celebrating his 67th birthday, said assuming McMurray will be gone is wrong.

“That is premature,” Roush said following Greg Biffle’s victory Friday night in the Nationwide Series. The win gave Roush 100 in that series.

“If I had something to announce, there would be something written on the shelf back there (in the media center). We’re not thinking about next year yet, we’re thinking about this year. Certainly there was nothing that has happened in the last week that is noteworthy or newsworthy and I wouldn’t care to speculate.”

In addition to McMurray and Biffle, Roush fields cars for Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and David Ragan. Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth all signed extensions last season, while Ragan is in the first year of a new sponsorship deal with UPS.

GRUMBLING GORDON: Robby Gordon wasn’t pleased with Michael Waltrip after contact with the No. 55 Toyota sent Gordon into the wall.

“I’m really looking forward to having a new driver in the 55 next year,” Gordon grumbled.

Waltrip owns his car, but said before the start of the season that he’ll retire at the end of the year if he’s not competitive.

The run-in occurred on lap 167 of the 312-lap race.

“I don’t know what Michael was doing,” Gordon said, “but he just ran us over.”

HE SAID IT: “Wow, it’s like the Super Bowl,” former New York Giants star Michael Strahan quipped as he walked into PIR’s exceedingly small, antiquated press room. Strahan shouted the command “Gentlemen, start your engines!” at the beginning of the race. He helped the Giants win the 2008 Super Bowl just down the road at University of Phoenix Stadium.

AP-ES-04-18-09 2356EDT

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