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Harris: Martin Still Has The Drive And Now He Has The Ride

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 23 2009
Mark Martin has come off the line strong in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mark Martin has come off the line strong in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Correspondent

Mark Martin doesn’t expect to win races.

Each time he does, the pessimism and humility seem to pour out of the diminutive driver.

“I’d better enjoy this one because it might be the last time I win one,’’ he’ll say.

Or: “I got lucky this time, but you can’t always have that kind of luck.’’

His stirring victory last Sunday at New Hampshire in the opening race of  NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was the 40th of his Cup career – and maybe the biggest.

There was nothing lucky about this one. He earned it. And it doesn’t seem likely that it will be his last, either.

He knew the number, but only because his wife, Arlene, told him earlier this summer that it was on the horizon.

“When we left Michigan (after winning there in June), … Arlene looked over at me … she happened to be at that one .. and she said, `Only three more to 40,’ or something like that,’’ Martin said. “She’s not much of a race fan. It was really odd for here to know that number and  (me) not know it.

“And for her to say so many to go to 40 was pretty strange. So it was a cool time and a cool number  to hit because of that little time that moment we shared.’’

Actually, it’s cool for more reasons than that.

Just the fact that Martin is still racing – and winning – at what is an advanced age in the stock car sport is pretty impressive. Only a handful of drivers have won Cup races after turning 50. But Martin  is going way beyond the idea of a senior driver running competitively and winning a few races – he’s seriously competing for a championship.

He has come close to the title before, finishing second four times, the last in 2002.

Most observers believed that was his last real shot at a championship. After all, Martin was getting up in age and talking  about retirement.

As anybody who follows the sport knows, Martin tried retirement – twice. It just didn’t take.

He has too much experience, too much energy, too much respect within the sport and too much talent for people to let him stay on the sidelines just yet, or for him to call it quits and keep watching on TV.

Now, driving for the elite Hendrick Motorsports team, Martin has everything he needs to make another serious run at the championship. And, for those who believed his four wins in the regular season were some kind of fluke, that big win in New Hampshire was a big exclamation point.

Martin won the race despite strong challenges from the considerably younger quartet of Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt and Kyle Busch.

And he did it the way you’d expect Mark Martin to get it done.

There was a little fender rubbing and bumping and banging out there on that one-mile oval, but Martin, known far and wide for his clean driving style, stayed true to himself and his image and came out on top.

Montoya had the chance to punt Martin in the closing laps when the leader suddenly slowed in front of him. But he hit the brakes instead and wound up handing Martin the win when he found himself racing side-by-side with Hamlin for second.

“I gave him the respect from day one on the racetrack, and I got respect a long time ago, not just today,’’ Martin said.  “That’s all you can do.

“I thought that he would do the right thing and,  if it didn’t turn out to be the right thing, I think it would have been a mistake, not something that he was going to do to try to knock me out of the way or something to get the win.  And he could count on the same from me.’’

“I don’t know,’’ Hamlin said when asked what he would have done in Montoya’s seat. “I would have probably gone for the win.  But I don’t know.  I mean, you always think about who it is.  You think about whether that guy has knocked you out of the way at the end of a race or not, and Mark never has.’’

Montoya, who made his reputation in IndyCars and Formula One, was a true outsider when he came to NASCAR a few years ago. It was Martin who the Colombian driver knew he could go to with questions or just for a brotherly pat on the back when he needed it.

That’s just the way Martin is.

He’s everyone’s friend, mentor and ally, and a fierce but fair competitor on the track.

“I think he’s the most dangerous guy,’’ Montoya said when asked about the championship battle. “He’s the guy with the most experience here. He hasn’t won a championship, and he wants one pretty bad.

“I mean, I know the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) is going to be there every week and everything, same thing as always, but if somebody wants it really bad, it’s that 5 guy (Martin).’’

Probably not bad enough to put another driver into the wall to make it happen.

And, despite all the kind words and the obvious respect he gets, on and off the track, Martin rarely strays from his quiet, self-deprecating ways.

“Part of my being humble is that a took a beating once and got ran out of town,’’ said Martin, whose first shot at NASCAR when he was in his early 20s ended with the youngster being sent back to the short tracks for more seasoning. “I wouldn’t be as humble if I hadn’t have gone through that experience.

“And the other thing is … I’ve swallowed some pretty big pills in my racing career, so I’m cautious about expecting things.  Like I didn’t expect to win this (New Hampshire) race once the cautions started falling.  I knew I’d fight for it, but to expect it and then it doesn’t happen will break you in half.  Expect to fight for it, and then you accept the results for what they are.

“It’s just how I manage my emotions and everything else. It doesn’t mean I don’t try hard.  I give my guts, man, but I’m not going to plan on something and then have it not work out.’’

Right now, with nine races to go in the Chase, Martin is the guy to beat. If  it does happen – finally – it would be a very popular championship.

– Mike Harris is the long-time auto-racing beat writer for the Associated Press and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 23 2009
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