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Pedley: Martin Scores One For The Romantics

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 19 2009
Mark Martin dispenses some bubbly after winning in Phoenix. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)   

Mark Martin dispenses some bubbly after winning in Phoenix. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

You would have thought Mark Martin got married Saturday night. As he stood sweating and uneasily smiling in the warm Phoenix night, flash bulbs were popping, champagne was flying, people were crying.

And the reception line. People were climbing all over each other to get in position to shake Martin’s hand and pat his back. Important people. Old friends and colleagues and  the odd crasher or two.

All that was missing was cake and clean clothes.

The event was not a wedding, of course. It was something which will likely last much longer than your average marriage. Produce less squabbling, as well.

What was happening in Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway was a celebration of all that is right about sports in America. What was happening was a feel-good story in which the good guy gets what he deserves and everybody looking on gets to take a big old taste of those good feelings.

Martin, that rare athlete who has many more admirers than detractors, won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 Saturday. And while it was just one of 36 Sprint Cup races he has won during a career that dates back to 1981, it was special.

It broke a streak of 97 futile starts, it came at 50 years old, it came in primetime, it came  at a time when some had begun to pity him and it came against a backdrop of taking one more shot at something that everybody in racing who has warm blood in their veins would love to see _ the perennial nice-guy runner-up winning the championship.

People have questioned the temperature of the blood in fellow driver Kurt Busch’s veins from time to time, but late Saturday, after Martin had relegated him to a third-place finish, Busch warmly put into perspective the meaning of it all.

Busch did that when he was asked what Martin’s victory meant.

“That’s a great question,” Busch said, “because all night long I was thinking: What would Mark Martin be doing right now, how does he drive his car?  Set up notes were going through my mind of the times Mark and I drove together; how loose he liked his race cars, how loose I liked mine and how similar we drove when we were teammates.  And I felt like, how am I going to beat this guy right now, how am I going to compete with beating Mark.”

Busch has also been known to butcher the English language from time to time. Saturday night, he was as succinct and proper as Henry Higgins.

“The guy has been at the top of his game for 30 years in this sport, it’s unbelievable to watch, or however many years he’s been in,” Busch said. “If I’m halfway as competitive as he is when I’m in my 50s, that would be an accomplishment, because to finish behind him, it’s easy for anybody to do because he is tough right now, and to see them at Hendrick, it’s like last week at Texas, Jeff Gordon had never won at Texas, had been strong all year; the stars aligned. I think that’s what happened with Mark this weekend.  To sit on the pole and win the race, those guys are strong right now. I did think about it all throughout the race; what would Mark be doing right now?”

Tony Stewart, now there is a guy who hates to lose. And when he does, good advice is to cup the hands over the kids’ ears.

He lost Saturday night. Stewart finished second to Martin. He said he would have loved to beat Martin because he loves to beat everybody.

But there he was in that hot, dirty reception line.

“Tells you how much respect we all have for him,” Stewart said. “There’s nobody that dislikes Mark, and Mark was responsible for so many of us learning what it took to be a Sprint Cup driver and to be that caliber of a driver.

“When you came up in the Nationwide Series and ran with him when he just dominated, he taught you a lot while you were running those races.  And when you had a good day against Mark and when you did things right and you watched him and learned from him, that just accelerated the learning curve to get you ready for the Sprint Cup Series.

“Mark has taught us all a lot about what it takes to be not only a good driver in this series but a good competitor and somebody that everybody respects.”

Now where is that ring?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 19 2009
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