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Rejuvenated Mark Martin goes for long-awaited Daytona 500 victory

“I had the most fun of my life last year, and I’m going to have a blast this year,” says Mark Martin, who had five wins in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick Motorsports

“I had the most fun of my life last year, and I’m going to have a blast this year,” says Mark Martin, who had five wins in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports.

DAYTONA BEACH — No matter how fast he goes, no matter how long he remains in the racing game, Mark Martin just can't seem to close down that pesky gap.

The one on his stellar resume.

Martin has never won the Daytona 500.

Oh, he has come close in 25 previous starts; in 2007, he missed by 0.02 seconds — roughly 5 feet behind Kevin Harvick — in one of the closest finishes ever. But for better or worse Martin, whose 40 Sprint Cup victories are tied for 16th all time, is generally recognized as the most accomplished driver to never win NASCAR's most celebrated race.

So what would it mean to end that drought on Sunday?

"It'd be the biggest trophy I have," he said simply.

For the first time, he will sit on the pole for the 500. In fact, at 51 Martin will be the oldest driver to start from that coveted spot that has produced nine winners, albeit none since Dale Jarrett in 2000.

"I love getting records," he deadpanned. "Can't get the youngest anymore."

"Mark has enough records to have his own record book," crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "I'm really proud to be able to do something he's never done because he's done an awful lot."

So did Pete Sampras in tennis. He just didn't win the French Open.

So did Greg Norman in golf. He just didn't win the Masters.

•••

Martin's chase for that elusive Daytona 500 win as well as his first Sprint Cup series championship, the other hole in his resume, seemed to be gearing down not that long ago.

In 2007 and '08, he reduced the number of Sprint Cup Series races to 24 so he could spend more time with his family. It ended up being time that allowed him to "reassess my life" and "charge my batteries."

With a new team, Hendrick Motorsports, and a new car, the No. 5 Chevrolet, he started all 36 races last year and enjoyed a renaissance.

He won five races — April 18 at Phoenix, May 9 at Darlington, June 14 at Michigan, July 11 at Chicagoland and Sept. 20 at New Hampshire — after having gone winless since 2005. He finished second in the standings for a record-tying fifth time.

"I couldn't have imagined it a few years ago," he said of his 2009 success. "It still hasn't registered much. What does register is, I had the most fun of my life last year and I'm going to have a blast this year. That's really exciting. Not many people my age can say, 'This is the best it's ever been.' And for me, it is."

•••

Martin is making 50-something look like the new 30-something.

But when you've been a workout warrior, you tend not to look your age. For many, he's to NASCAR what Brett Favre was to the NFL this past season: Someone who defies the odds by outperforming guys half his age.

"It used to be you just had to have a really good car, but now everybody's got a really good car," he said. "The competition is so close now that you're forced to push to raise your physical and mental level far beyond where it used to be."

But is he a better driver now than he was when he was much younger?

"I don't know as a whole if I am or not; I know there are segments that I'm better at and there are probably segments that had declined. I'm as good as I can be right now under the circumstances, that I can promise you."

"He's a bad a--," said Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, 34, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champ. "This last year, when it came down to the two of us, if I lost the championship, I would have slept fine and would have been truly proud of him and happy for him and would have been the first one to congratulate him."

Martin was the driver he tried to emulate growing up.

"He's tough," Johnson continued. "He's a bad a--."

•••

But will Martin prove to be tough enough at Daytona International Speedway when it matters the most? Finally? He has won at the track before, though not in a points race in 49 tries including July events.

"I try to focus on the positives and the good memories and what a privilege it is (to race here) and how lucky I am to do this," he said. "(Winning a race) can get a little bit (routine), but that's why you have to think every time you win — this could be the last chance I get to do this."

That despite his commitment to drive full-time for Hendrick Motorsports through 2011.

His peers, however, don't believe Martin must end his drought here.

"I don't see that as a hole in his resume," said Bobby Labonte, 45, the Cup champion in 2000 who also doesn't have a win in the Daytona 500 among his own impressive list of accomplishments.

"I love Mark Martin. I'm a big fan of his, and I've always been. He is one of the best guys out there. I mean, it's so hard to win a championship. Jimmie Johnson makes it look easy, but it's so hard to win a championship. His not winning one or not winning the Daytona 500 doesn't make him anything less. I don't consider him being anything less than amazing."

As for Martin, it doesn't seem to, well, drive him obsessively.

"I'm just lucky," he said with a broad smile, "to have an outstanding resume with some holes in it."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

DAYTONA BEACH

No matter how fast he goes, no matter how long he remains in the racing game, Mark Martin just can't seem to close down that pesky gap. The one on his stellar resume. Martin never has won the Daytona 500. Oh, he has come close in 25 previous starts; in 2007, he missed by 0.02 seconds — roughly 5 feet behind Kevin Harvick — in one of the closest finishes ever. But for better or worse Martin, whose 40 Sprint Cup victories are tied for 16th all time, is generally recognized as the most accomplished driver never to win NASCAR's most celebrated race. So what would it mean to end that drought today?

"It'd be the biggest trophy I have," he said.

For the first time, he will sit on the pole for the 500. In fact, at 51 Martin will be the oldest driver to start from that coveted spot that has produced nine winners, but none since Dale Jarrett in 2000.

"I love getting records," he deadpanned. "Can't get the youngest anymore."

"Mark has enough records to have his own record book," crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "I'm really proud to be able to do something he's never done because he's done an awful lot."

So did Pete Sampras in tennis. He just didn't win the French Open.

So did Arnold Palmer in golf. He just didn't win the PGA Championship.

•••

Martin's chase for that elusive Daytona 500 win as well as his first Sprint Cup series championship, the other hole in his resume, seemed to be gearing down not that long ago.

In 2007 and '08, he reduced the number of Sprint Cup races to 24 so he could spend more time with his family. It ended up being time that allowed him to "reassess my life" and "charge my batteries."

With a new team, Hendrick Motorsports, and a new car, the No. 5 Chevrolet, he started all 36 races last year and enjoyed a renaissance.

He won five races — April 18 at Phoenix, May 9 at Darlington, June 14 at Michigan, July 11 at Chicagoland and Sept. 20 at New Hampshire — after having gone winless since 2005. He finished second in the standings for a record-tying fifth time.

"I couldn't have imagined it a few years ago," he said of his 2009 success. "It still hasn't registered much. What does register is I had the most fun of my life last year, and I'm going to have a blast this year. That's really exciting. Not many people my age can say, 'This is the best it's ever been.' And for me, it is."

•••

Martin is making 50-something look like the new 30-something.

But when you've been a workout warrior, you tend not to look your age. For many, he's to NASCAR what Brett Favre was to the NFL this past season: someone who defies the odds by outperforming guys half his age.

"It used to be you just had to have a really good car, but now everybody's got a really good car," he said. "The competition is so close now that you're forced to push to raise your physical and mental level far beyond where it used to be."

But is he a better driver now than he was when he was much younger?

"I don't know as a whole if I am or not; I know there are segments that I'm better at and there are probably segments that had declined," he said. "I'm as good as I can be right now under the circumstances, that I can promise you."

"He's a bad a- -," said Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, 34, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champ. "This last year, when it came down to the two of us, if I lost the championship, I would have slept fine and would have been truly proud of him and happy for him and would have been the first one to congratulate him."

Martin was the driver Johnson tried to emulate growing up.

"He's tough," Johnson continued. "He's a bad a- -."

•••

But will Martin prove to be tough enough at Daytona International Speedway when it matters the most? Finally? He has won at the track before, though not in a points race in 49 tries including July events.

"I try to focus on the positives and the good memories and what a privilege it is (to race here) and how lucky I am to do this," he said. "(Winning a race) can get a little bit (routine), but that's why you have to think every time you win — this could be the last chance I get to do this."

That despite his commitment to drive full-time for Hendrick Motorsports through 2011.

His peers, however, don't believe Martin must end his drought here.

"I don't see that as a hole in his resume," said Bobby Labonte, 45, the Cup champion in 2000 who also doesn't have a win in the Daytona 500 among his own impressive list of accomplishments.

"I love Mark Martin. I'm a big fan of his, and I've always been. He is one of the best guys out there. I mean, it's so hard to win a championship. Jimmie Johnson makes it look easy, but it's so hard to win a championship. (Martin) not winning one or not winning the Daytona 500 doesn't make him anything less. I don't consider him being anything less than amazing."

As for Martin, it doesn't seem to, well, drive him obsessively.

"I'm just lucky," he said with a broad smile, "to have an outstanding resume with some holes in it."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

. fast facts

Mark Martin

Car: No. 5 Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Crew chief: Alan Gustafson

Age: 51

Hometown/residence: Batesville, Ark.; Daytona Beach

Wife: Arlene

Children: Amy, Heather, Rachel, Stacy and Matthew

Career highlights: Sprint Cup points runnerup five times (1990, '94, '98, 2002, '09). … Last year at 50, became the third oldest driver to win a Cup NASCAR race. … Top 10 in points 12 consecutive years (1989-2000). … Began career in 1981 (with five races); has made 758 career starts with 40 wins, 257 top-five finishes and 417 top 10s. … Has won the pole 48 times; today's race is No. 49. … Has career earnings of $75,811,072.

Rejuvenated Mark Martin goes for long-awaited Daytona 500 victory 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 9:18pm]
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