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Martin Silences The Little Voices In His Head

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 19 2009
Mark Martin leads Tony Stewart late in Saturday night's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)

Mark Martin leads Tony Stewart late in Saturday night's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix. Martin beat Stewart to the finish line. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)


By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

There is a little voice in the back of his head that continues to drive Mark Martin to distraction.

Drives him to perfection.

Basically, drives him insane.

Arguably NASCAR’s fiercest competitor, Martin promised to ease up on himself Saturday night, after snapping a 97-race Sprint Cup Series winless streak at Phoenix International Raceway.

I’m going to try not to be as insane, you know, as I have been in the past, and do my job and enjoy it,” Martin said after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Avondale, Ariz. “Because you know, this one truly might be the last one. Hopefully not . Hopefully not.”

Martin’s mantra always has been that his most recent victory might be his last. From a driver who now has 36 career victories, that does sound crazy.

Then again,consider Martin’s nomadic journey from Roush Fenway Racing to Ginn Racing to Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports since his previous Cup win at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9, 2005. Consider that Martin turned 50-years-old in January. And consider the eyebrows raised throughout NASCAR Nation when Martin, who purposefully had slashed his Cup schedule in an effort to enjoy a “normal” lifestyle, signed-on last year for a fulltime ride with Rick Hendrick’s juggernaut.

“I took this deal because I wanted to drive a really fast race car, seriously,” said Martin, driver of the No. 5 Carquest/Kellogg’s Chevrolet Impala SS. “And I thought I was going to get the deal done with my schedule, and I got my heart wrapped around it before the final thing came down that we had to do them all. And so really, for me, I struggle with that.

“I did this because I wanted to do it out of love. You know, I do it for the passion of what I have, and I don’t have anything else with that kind of passion. I haven’t found anything to fill that void and drive me like racing and all those things. But there is a little voice in the back of my head, you know, asking if, ‘Are you sure you’re worthy of this opportunity?’ And that’s part of the reason I’ve been successful. And if you’ll check with successful people, they are insanely driven. And so yeah, there’s been a little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Are you worthy of this opportunity?’

“I know that they (HMS management) thought so. I know that Jeff (Gordon) did and I know that Rick did.  And I’ve still got to produce. This is not over. This is something like, I think, eight races. I’ve got to keep on; I can’t just go out and start riding around now. We’ll be fine.”

Martin’s first victory for Hendrick was scored from the pole. He led five times for a total of 157 of 312 laps en route to holding off two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.

The most recent Cup win by a 50-year-old driver was by Morgan Shepherd in 1993 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Harry Gant remains the oldest winner of a Cup race. “Handsome Harry” was 52 when he won at Michigan International Speedway in 1992. Only four Cup drivers now have won races at age 50 or older – Gant, Shepherd, Bobby Allison and Martin.The latter did so by out-hustling Stewart after a restart with six laps to go. Stewart’s teammate, Ryan Newman, had assumed the lead by staying on-track during the final caution period with 11 laps remaining. When the green flag fell, Martin easily shot past Newman and his worn tires in Turn 2 and into the lead for good.

“I knew I could lose. I know every way to lose a race you know,” said Martin, of Batesville, Ark. “I prayed so hard for the white flag so we couldn’t have a green-white-checkered. I probably ran the fastest lap all night coming down for that white flag. 

“Tony raced me clean but he would have raced me crazy, too, to get the win. I knew I had to go. I went one way and then that didn’t work so I went the other way and made it work.”

Stewart, who was seeking his first win as owner/driver of Stewart/Haas Racing, was gracious in his praise of Martin.

“We ran just as hard as we could to stay with Mark and we stayed with him,” said Stewart, a customer of Hendrick Motorsports with his No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy. “But we just weren’t close enough to make it interesting. To run second to Mark Martin is good; good to see him still kicking butt. I think this generation, where everybody is supposed to retire a lot earlier, the longevity seems a lot more realistic now. It just shows that a guy like him can kick our butts just like anybody else.”

Stewart led a parade of drivers and officials congratulating Martin, including a smiling Roush. Fittingly, Roush Fenway Racing celebrated its 100th Nationwide Series victory at PIR Friday night when Greg Biffle won the Bashas Supermarkets 200. However, 40 of those Nationwide wins went into the record book in Fords driven by Martin. 
“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not a Mark Martin fan,” said Stewart, who scored his third top-five and sixth top-10. “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.”

To that end, Martin eschewed the post-win burnout to instead complete a reverse “Polish Victory Lap” in tribute to the late Alan Kulwicki, Cup champion in 1992.  

“Obviously enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm from the race fans,” Martin said. “But you know, the response from the competitors means much more than the trophy, and that was incredible. Really, really incredible, from all of the crew guys to all of the guys, including Jack Roush, who seemed genuinely happy. And Jack and I are as tight as we have ever been. I’m still a huge fan of Jack Roush’s and he’s still a huge fan of mine. So that was good to see.”

Martin also cited crew chief Alan Gustafson, a home-grown product of the Hendrick organization, for accelerating his transition.

“You know, I’ve wanted the effort,” Martin said. “Or I’ve wanted the result to equal the effort on their side and on my side. We didn’t just fall into this one. It was cool. That’s the way I want to win right there, not stumble around and fall into it. Man, go out there and take it.”

Gustafson has spent his career largely around championship-caliber drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Terry Labonte.

“You can go down the list,” Gustafson said. “But Mark is really special for a lot of reasons. Mark was a guy that I watched growing up and had a huge amount of respect for. I loved the way that he raced. I loved his attitude and his working man’s ethic and how he went about his business, how appreciative he is, how he understands the magnitude of the situations and respects that and appreciates that.

‘So for him to have the faith in me to do the job and Mr. Hendrick, you know, you can’t put into words. I’m just really fortunate, lucky, and I’m just really blessed.”

Gordon, a four-time series champion and the current points-leader, saw his first outing since winning at Texas Motor Speeday on April 5 ruined by a late penalty for a missing lug nut during a green flag pit stop. The ensuing drive-through penalty dropped Gordon nearly two laps behind the leaders. He finished 25th.

“But I’m really excited about Mark Martin winning tonight,” said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Impala SS. “I think that’s so cool. We’re so excited about having him at Hendrick Motorsports. I know how bad he wanted to win. He’s got a car and a team that can do it, and he’s one driving fool.”  
Kurt Busch finished third in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger. Jimmie Johnson, Martin’s HMS teammate and the three-time/reigning series champion, was fourth in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy. Johnson trails Gordon by 85 points heading to Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499 next Sunday. 

“Very good for us. We fought hard for it all night,” said Johnson, who has one win, four top-five and six top-10 finishes this season. “Just have to say how happy I am for that No. 5 to go to Victory Lane. They have been working very, very hard. Mark Martin has been a great addition over there.”  

The win, Martin’s second at PIR, moved him from 18th to 13th in the championship standings, just nine points out of the12th and final spot in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But a 50-year-old driver contending for the Cup championship against drivers half his age? Or less?

That’s borderline insane.

“You know, I’m not going to wreck a good time by worrying about a championship or points,” said Martin, a four-time runnerup in Cup points but never a title-winner in NASCAR’s premier series. “Obviously we are going to race for points. It will be very disappointing if we don’t make the Chase. (But) I’m having a ball.Let me enjoy this. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, you know, and that’s where I am on that.”  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 19 2009
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