NASCAR & Auto Racing

Martin driving strong at 50

As is his style, Mark Martin didn't want to make a fuss or a draw any attention to himself.

Martin, NASCAR's elder statesman and tortured soul, had just quietly extended his contract with Hendrick Motorsports a few weeks ago to keep racing fulltime in the Sprint Cup series through the 2011 season.

"Who would want to quit?" Martin said.

Not Martin. Not now. Not when he's so close to ending nearly three decades of frustration and heartbreak by winning an elusive Sprint Cup championship.

Martin, at the crusty age of 50, has won a Sprint Cup-most five races this season and will sit on the pole with a 10-point lead over teammate Jimmie Johnson in today's third leg of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway.

It was only three years ago when Martin decided to step away from fulltime racing, resigned to the fact his career would be marked by four runner-up and four third-place finishes in the Cup standings, and he'd forever be known as the best driver never to win a championship.

After toiling part-time for second-tier teams in 2006 and 2007, Hendrick offered Martin a chance to drive with three-time champion Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Who would have thought Martin would have the best year of them all?

"It's been a real magical year," Martin said quietly, so not to jinx a most-unexpected season. I'm having the time of my life."

It didn't look that way just six weeks ago in Michigan. Though Martin had enjoyed a decent, if inconsistent year with his new team, winning four races, he ran out of fuel at Michigan, finished 31st and dropped to 12th in the points standings, the last position that would qualify for the Chase.

Martin met with crew chief Alan Gustafson and calmed the fears of those on the team.

"I said 'Alan, it's okay, I don't care if we make the Chase or not man, we've won four races,'" Martin said. "It's been Christmas every day this year for me.' That's how I felt right then and there. If we didn't make the Chase, I absolutely did not care. We had won four races. Way beyond my expectations, and I really meant that.

"And he says, 'We're going to make it.' And I was like in the back of my head saying, 'I don't think so, I don't know how we're going to do it, there's not much time left, and everybody that we're racing is running good.' "

But nobody would run better than Martin. He ripped off a second at Bristol and a fifth at Atlanta that sewed up a spot in the Chase. Then a fourth at Richmond, and when the Chase standings were re-set, the 40 bonus points from winning four races vaulted Martin into the Chase lead.

He won the first race of the Chase at Loudon followed by a second at Dover. That's six straight races with top five finishes.

"This certainly rivals my best year ever, " said Martin, who won his first Cup race in 1989, "and at this stage of my career, I certainly wouldn't have expected to rival 1998."

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Oh, 1998. That was one of the four seasons of heartbreak for Martin, who won a career-best seven races that year, only to lose out to Jeff Gordon, who won a phenomenal 13 races.

Martin finished just 26 points behind Dale Earnhardt in 1990 and was second to The Intimidator again in 1994. He lost to Tony Stewart on the final weekend of the 2002 season.

Finally, after 19 seasons and 35 Cup wins with Roush Racing, Martin decided after the 2006 season it was time to scale back. But when Casey Mears left Hendrick Motorsports for Richard Childress Racing after the 2008 season, the call went to Martin.

He couldn't pass up an opportunity to join a team with the starpower and firepower of Johnson, Gordon and Junior.

Martin started slowly, and a couple of blown engines and 40th-place finishes at California and Las Vegas in weeks two and three put the team in a hole. But once Martin pulled out a win at Phoenix on April 18 — becoming the oldest driver in Cup history to win a race — his season turned around.

The win at Phoenix was Martin's first since 2005, at Kansas Speedway, a span of 107 races without a victory.

"I thought Phoenix was overwhelming, the realization of a dream," Martin said. "A lot of people questioned whether I would win another race. I certainly questioned it myself.

"I have a lot of trust in Alan Gustafson. I let him do his thing, and he's brought so much support, in so many areas and unloaded so much off my shoulders. What Alan and I have going is really something special."

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Hendrick Motorsports was faced with a decision. With an open seat in the No. 5 car for 2010, did it want to retain Martin or follow through with its plans to bring on rising young star Brad Keselowski, who at 25 was half Martin's age?

"Going in, he had reservations about how competitive he might be," Ken Howes, vice president of competition, said of Martin. "He's the type of person who wouldn't want to be doing anything that he wasn't enjoying or if he felt he was holding the team back. But fairly soon it became apparent that he was competitive and enjoying it.

"There came a point, where the question had to be asked of Mark, 'Where do we go from here?' He wanted to carry on, he's having too much fun. The stars have lined up for him. Mark has always been a really good driver. Circumstances have prevented him from winning that championship that he wants very badly."

And people are rooting for him.

"If you can't win, the guy you would root for is Mark Martin," said Carl Edwards. "He's really the face of our sport, and in a lot of ways a good representation of what we all strive to be... dedicated... humble... and he's extended the careers of everybody here."

Indeed, 50 may be the new 30 if Martin can hang on and win the championship. His rivals don't consider Martin old.

"With today's modern medicine and technology and how we understand the body more so than say 50 years ago, I don't see 50 as being old," said Brian Vickers, the youngest driver in the Chase at 25. "I think it has less to do with Mark's age and more to do with the fact he's still really hungry.... You can see it. You can see it when you talk to him. You can see it on the race track.

"If he had won four championships, would he still be able to do it at 50? I think desire has more to do with it than age. The advantage he has over any of us is he has just as much desire, but he has a lot more experience. I don't think his age hurts him whatsoever... but I'm not 50 yet. And he's probably in better shape than most of the guys in the garage."

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So what if he fails to win this championship? What happens if Johnson wins his record fourth straight, or Juan Pablo Montoya makes history and becomes the first foreign-born Sprint Cup champion?

What then for Mark Martin? He'll be OK.

"It's not something that defines my career," Martin said. "Would it be the crown jewel of my career? Of course, it would. But I also really believe that the trophy doesn't make the man. It's his actions, what you do that really defines who you are. You know, at the end of 10 races, if I do everything that I can to score every point I can, to get the most out of myself, my car and my race team, then it will be a success no matter what.

"There is one thing that we do have that I think we have more of than any of the other 11 in the chase. That's the heart. My race team has the biggest hearts in the world and I feel really good about what we have accomplished especially considering that we started together in February.

"No matter what the racing from here on out decides, as far as I am concerned, we won't lose. We might not score as many points, but we won't lose."

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