A month after celebrating his 51st birthday in January, Mark Martin took a giant step toward exorcising his demons at Daytona International Speedway, which has long been his albatross in NASCAR’s top racing series, the Sprint Cup.
Martin, a jockey-size, jagged-jawed, 28-year stock car veteran, vaulted past teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. with the fastest qualifying time to win a starting spot in the front row of the Daytona 500.
But on Valentine’s Day, in his 26th Daytona 500, Martin was overshadowed by Earnhardt. He led twice for 11 laps, but race stoppages totaling nearly 2 1/2 hours seemed to adversely affect the handling of his No. 5 Chevrolet, leaving him with a solid yet dissatisfying 12th-place finish behind surprising winner Jamie McMurray.
Martin eluded the racetrack’s pothole that knocked out four-time reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who was among several victims.
“It was pretty risky, but the fans got what they paid for,” Martin said. “I think we got just about everything we could out of that car.”
Martin—the oldest active full-time Sprint Cup driver—had appeared tired and worn three years ago when he hesitantly conceded to racing part time for the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc. But somehow he has seemingly tapped into the fountain of youth and has given his NASCAR career fresh legs.
In 2009, Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, lured Martin out of semi-retirement, giving him the keys to a well-equipped No. 5 Chevrolet and a savvy crew chief, Alan Gustafson. A rejuvenated Martin won five times last year. He is confident his latest effort at Daytona isn’t a prelude to what’s to come this season. Over the years he came close to winning the prestigious race several times, finishing second in 2007 behind Kevin Harvick, who roared past him on the last of 200 laps.
“I wanted to be the youngest [to win the Daytona 500], and I didn’t manage to set that record,” Martin says. “So, I’ll take what I can get at this stage in my career.”
Martin won five races in 2009, an impressive return after slipping to the back of the pack—27th in 2007 and 28th in 2008. It was an unusual position for a driver who had finished in the top 10 a remarkable 12 years in a row.
“I think seeing Mark Martin winning five races, you’re seeing that it’s the equipment and team complementing a driver who’s been around and gotten some smarts to go along with his talents,” says Mike Skinner, another fiftysomething NASCAR driver. “Experience is hard to beat.”
Martin considered stepping away from the sport, in part because infrequent visits to Victory Lane tempered his enthusiasm. He wasn’t spectacular, yet he was competitive. After winning seven times in 1998, he finished first only six times over the next 10 seasons.
The Arkansas native earned a reputation as an unrepentant aggressor who dared to navigate his cars through the thinnest seams. He never feared losing. But every agonizing defeat—including five second-place finishes in the annual Sprint Cup championship—agitated him. It appears he begins another season feeling good about his chances of winning that elusive championship, a feat that could certainly thrust him into the spotlight alongside his more celebrated teammates—Johnson, Jeff Gordon and especially Earnhardt, who for the past decade has been NASCAR’s most popular driver.
Still, doubts remain about Martin having what it takes to compete mentally and physically throughout the long 36-event Sprint Cup schedule. He bristles at the suggestions with an intimidating stare.
“I’m not Mr. Optimistic,” he quips. “I’m not Mr. Pessimistic. I’m Mr. Realistic. And realistically speaking, I can’t tell you what the result will be in 2010.”
The father of five isn’t worried that time is running out on his quest to bolster his legacy with a championship. However, there’s an undeniable reality that this season could be his last best shot at glory.
Martin insists his age isn’t the steepest mountain to climb. He embraces the challenge, but knows Johnson is capable of beating the odds of extending his Sprint Cup record to five consecutive championships.
“You can’t really control what other people do and how they perform,” Martin says. “What you can do is focus on your performance and strengthening everything in your program. And Alan [Gustafson] and I and the team have looked at every piece of it, and we have tried to add strength to every part of it.
“When you’re performing on the level that we performed in 2009, it’s hard to make large gains in any one area. But if you can make just a little bit of a gain in most areas, then hopefully you’ll be the one the field is chasing.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and author of Jim O’Brien: Bucking the Odds.