April 22, 2009
Given NASCAR Nation's music tastes, it's only fitting to liken Mark Martin's victory at Phoenix on Saturday to a Toby Keith lyric.
"I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."
Martin is the fourth driver in his 50s to take a Sprint Cup checkered flag. Like Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd before him, he's past his prime and unlikely to win the series championship.
After all, Martin's victory was his first in Cup since 2005, a stretch of 97 races. He made the circuit's playoff Chase in 2004, '05 and '06, but never finished within 100 points of the title.
Martin, though, has advantages Allison, Gant and Shepherd never enjoyed.
One, he drives for NASCAR's bigfoot team, Hendrick Motorsports. Two, he's the fittest 50-year-old to ever bump draft at 180 mph.
"I've been asked a thousand questions about Mark and Mark's age," Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, told reporters after the Phoenix race, "and I can tell you, I don't even think about it. It doesn't even come into the equation when I talk with him and work with him and when I'm around him. It's irrelevant with Mark.
"Mark's enthusiasm, his energy, his drive ... he has more drive than any person I've probably met."
Kurt Busch, who finished third to Martin on Saturday, recalled his father buying him Martin's book: "Strength Training for Performance Driving."
"I was like, man, this guy is built like a brick you-know-what," Busch said.
Indeed, Martin is admired by peers for his fitness and dietary discipline — take note, Tony Stewart. But Rick Hendrick's eight-figure sponsorship package is more critical than Martin's six-pack abs.
This is Martin's first full Cup season since 2006 and his first driving for Hendrick, whose teams have won eight of the last 14 Cup titles: Terry Labonte one, Jeff Gordon four and Jimmie Johnson the last three.
So if any graybeard can supplant Allison as NASCAR's oldest champ (less than a week shy of 46), it's Martin, arguably the best driver never to have won the Cup. Four times he's been runner-up, most recently in 2002, when he finished 38 points behind Stewart.
But Martin insists his resumption of full-time racing is not fueled by some quixotic quest. Moreover, he understands that one victory does not a contender make.
"We need to build our team, and we've got to get better from where we are right now," Martin said Saturday. "But we are eight races (into the season), and we showed improvement tonight. The other races were really good, and we were about sixth place in every ... single one, but that won't win a championship anymore."
Due in part to a pair of engine failures, Martin's season began miserably. He was 34th in points after four races, but four subsequent finishes of seventh or better have vaulted him to 13th in the standings, nine points behind Matt Kenseth.
With the Chase field at 12, Martin is in the hunt. But with playoff veterans such as Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lurking in his rearview mirror, Martin cannot blink.
"It will be very disappointing if we don't make the Chase," Martin said.
The next two weeks, at Talladega and Richmond, could be telling.
Martin has not driven a Cup race at Talladega since 2006, and dating to 2000 has only one top-five in his last 14 starts there. Conversely, Martin has seven top-fives this decade at Richmond, including a third and fifth last year.
Gant authored the best season of a 50-something when in 1992 he won at Dover and Michigan, and finished fourth in points behind Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison. He was 52 at season's end.
Martin turned 50 in January and pinched himself at the opportunity Hendrick afforded.
"If you'll check with successful people, they are insanely driven," Martin said, "and so, yeah, there's been a little voice in the back of my head saying, 'Are you worthy of this opportunity?' "
No one in the garage questions Martin's worthiness. He's notoriously hard on himself but vowed to appreciate this victory and season more.
"I've been so incredibly blessed," Martin said. "I was really happy in 2008 and have been even more happy in 2009, and I didn't think that was possible. I am in a different league of stress level compared to last year, but working with (this team) ... overcomes the stress level of ... measuring up, measuring up to myself.
"I don't want to let anybody down. ... I'm going to try and not be as insane as I have been in the past, and do my job and enjoy it because, you know, this (win) might be the last one."
Martin's modesty prompted laughter in the press room.
"Hopefully not," he added. "Hopefully not."
Upcoming race schedule Aaron's 499, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway,
2 p.m. Sunday on
Fox 35 43.
Russ Friedman 400, Richmond International Raceway, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 2 on Fox.
Cup point leaders1. Jeff Gordon
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Kurt Busch
4. Tony Stewart
5. Denny Hamlin
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Kyle Busch
8. Carl Edwards
9. David Reutimann
10. Kasey Kahne
11. Jeff Burton
12. Matt Kenseth
13. Mark Martin
14. Greg Biffle
15. Juan Montoya