-- An apparently honest mistake over a coil of steel worth a couple hundred dollars could cost Mark Martin this season's $3.75 million NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

With stock-car racing's 2002 title on the line in Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martin trails front-runner Tony Stewart by 89 points. And Martin's prospects for overtaking Stewart grew even bleaker this afternoon when he qualified a miserable 34th for Sunday's finale after his team misjudged the sunny skies and sticky air in preparing his Ford for its run at the pole.

Stewart, meantime, will start his Pontiac sixth after cruising around the 1.5-mile oval at 152.547 mph.

But Martin's most costly mistake, should he fall short in his run at the title, may well be the faulty spring that NASCAR inspectors found in his Taurus after its second-place finish at Rockingham, N.C., two weeks ago. The spring, which had less than the required number of coils, violated NASCAR rules, and NASCAR officials docked his team 25 points for the infraction.

Martin's team has appealed the penalty and will make its case before a NASCAR-appointed tribunal in a closed-door meeting at an undisclosed location Saturday at 8 a.m. If the penalty is overturned, Martin's deficit would be cut to 64 points entering Sunday's race, improving his chances of overtaking Stewart for the prestigious title.

But those familiar with NASCAR's largely secretive adjudication process don't like Martin's chances.

NASCAR traditionally has rebuked rules-breakers by levying fines. But in the modern era of millionaire drivers and $16 million race teams, even five-figure fines were losing their effectiveness. So NASCAR officials have increasingly turned to stripping teams of points toward the season's lucrative championship.

In the last three years, 13 teams in NASCAR's three major racing series have had points deducted -- among them, four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who lost 100 points in 2000 for an unapproved manifold.

None of the penalties was overturned.

"Look at the percentages," said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, who was involved in appealing the 2000 penalty. "You can have the best football team in the world, but if you're going up against a team that's 100-0, it doesn't look so good."

Roush Racing, which fields Martin's Ford, said that it bought the faulty spring from a NASCAR-approved supplier and didn't alter it.

The steel springs, which cost $200 to $1,000 apiece, help determine a racecar's suspension. Under NASCAR rules, they must be a certain height and have a certain number of coils. By deviating from those requirements, in theory, a race team could get the car to sit lower to the ground, which would reduce aerodynamic drag and make it go faster, according to NASCAR crew chief Pat Tryson.

While an alert crew member could spot a flaw in a spring, Tryson suspects it simply slipped onto Martin's car unnoticed.

Regardless, Loomis said he is convinced that the spring "didn't have one iota effect" on Martin's performance at Rockingham. But he predicts Martin's representatives will have a tough time winning their case Saturday.

Loomis was among five representatives (three from Hendrick Motorsports, two from General Motors) arguing Gordon's case before the three-man NASCAR tribunal in 2000. They arrived in their finest suits, armed with two or three manifolds, scales, samples of aluminum and reams of data. And they were told to sit on one side of the nicest table that Loomis had ever seen.

The hearing lasted all day, and their appeal was rejected the following day. According to NASCAR, even if Gordon's team hadn't manufactured the faulty manifold (which controls the mixture of air and gasoline that goes to the carburetor), they were responsible for it.

And that's likely what Martin's representatives will be told after Saturday's hearing.

"I don't think it should be overturned," driver Michael Waltrip said. "There's no reason to change it."

Either way, Martin faces a tough race Sunday, given his poor qualifying effort. "It was terrible," Martin said of his 150.184 mph lap. "We weren't prepared for sun like this. But we've got a great racecar for the race, and this is just one part of it."

With a lap of 150.184, Mark Martin qualified 34th for Sunday's season-ending Ford 400. NASCAR docked Martin 25 points for an improper spring two weeks ago at Rockingham.Winston Cup points leader Tony Stewart unsuccessfully tries to outrun photographers at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With lap of 152.547, he qualified sixth for the Ford 400.Tony Stewart leads the second-place Mark Martin by 89 points in the points race for the Winston Cup championship. Sunday's Ford 400 is the final race of the season.