About a year ago, Mark Martin set off on a NASCAR ride like few others in his stellar career.
Five Sprint Cup victories, a runnerup finish to Jimmie Johnson in points, and, in middle age, a renewed passion for his life's work.
"It was a magical year, last year, for me," Martin said this week at an appearance in Florence, S.C. "And I still feel the magic each time I strap into a race car."
Martin has yet to win this year, but stands seventh in the points going into Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. And he believes he has a more polished, savvy team ready to win when it matters most — down the stretch.
Martin, 51, certainly made headlines with victories at Phoenix and Darlington last spring. He even beat Johnson to the punch early in the Chase for the Championship with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the first of the 10 playoff races that determine the champion.
However, Johnson's No. 48 team took an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title.
"I hope (this year) that we'll have the hammer when it's time to go," Martin said.
He spoke to about 200 fans Wednesday at a question-and-answer session. He tackled everything from his celebrated workout regimen ("Wednesday was leg day," he offered), to how he meshes with his equally famous fellow Hendrick drivers (Very well, he said. "Dale Jr. really cracks us up.")
Mostly, Martin spoke of his joy for racing.
"I've said several times already today, if there were any beach in the world I'd rather be on than at the racetrack, that's where I'd be," said Martin, grinning broadly.
Not long ago, that beach chair might've looked pretty good to him.
He rose to stardom with owner Jack Roush, winning 35 races over 19 seasons. But much of that time, Martin burned for a title. Anything less — and he was runnerup four times in that era — was a disappointment, no matter how much success he had.
"I drove that (Roush No.) 6 car to win that championship and I think that left me a little hollow," he said.
He became a part-time Sprint Cup racer in 2007 and '08, but then something surprising happened. Martin stopped worrying about titles and focused on racing.
Then he reached a deal with his friend, owner Rick Hendrick, to run full time in 2009. Now he's with Hendrick through 2011 and can't imagine a day without racing.
Martin says it's not fair to compare his Roush time with last season with Hendrick, "but I'm by far the happiest I've ever been in my life right now."
Martin hoped he'd finally succeed at last month's Daytona 500, a gap in his standout NASCAR resume. Things looked good when he won the pole for the first time. However, he finished 12th and left 0-for-50 at Sprint Cup's most famous layout.
"Listen," he told the fans, "I was at Daytona for a week and a half and I didn't make one good move the whole time. It was pitiful."
He has surged in the standings since. But even if Martin can't duplicate 2009, he's where he wants to be.
"I know I can't do anything that makes me feel like racing does," he said.