While it’s a big deal in most stick and ball sports when an athlete turns 40, in NASCAR, many competitors are just hitting their prime.
Greg Biffle, 41, has led the Sprint Cup point standings for the last 10 races. On Saturday, 53-year-old Mark Martin earned the pole for the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks. It’s his fifth pole in 52 races at Dover International Speedway, where he scored his first NASCAR victory in what was then the Busch Series 25 years ago.
For Martin, who participates part time in Cup, driving the No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota, the lap of 158.297 mph gave him his 54th career pole in 840 starts and his third pole this season.
And Martin humbly acknowledged, "I would never try that again."
However, Martin might have to if he hopes to break Harry Gant’s record for being the oldest driver to win a pole at age 54. Fortunately, Martin shows no signs of slowing down. He has an average finish of 11.4 in the seven races in which his engine hasn’t failed. Still, he remains 26th in the point standings among drivers who have raced in all 12 events. Martin’s average start of 8.1 is second only to Kasey Kahne (7.1) on the Sprint Cup tour.
But the complexion on the sport has changed considerably since Martin made his first Cup start in 1981. In the days before technology was king, teams had to rely more on what driver’s felt in the seat of their pants rather than computer feedback.
"Back when I got started there were no engineers in the sport and the driver himself had to be the data acquisition, so to speak, and help the crew chief in many ways and guide the crew chief much like the simulation does and our engineers do today," Martin said. "The sport continues to lean toward (that direction).
"It’s not a problem to be Joey Logano’s age (22) and come out here and win big. You couldn’t get a ride when you were Joey Logano’s age when I was coming in. You had to wait for Bobby Allison or Richard Petty or Cale Yarborough or somebody to step aside because there were only seven, eight, nine or 10 good cars. You had to race for 15 years before you got a chance in a car you could really win in anyway.
"All those things are different now. You get fairly equal equipment when you first step into this thing because you get a team car, so you get much better equipment at younger (ages) and you have the engineers and the computers and those things, so the driver only has to say what the car is doing and what it feels like and they can take it from there. Back in the day, you had to tell the crew chief more."
While Martin made his mark driving the flagship No. 6 Ford for Jack Roush for 19 seasons, he’s enjoyed the second half of his racing career as a utility player of sorts for Ginn Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and currently Michael Waltrip Racing. At Ginn, Martin served as a mentor and shared driving duties with Regan Smith. With Hendrick, he nearly won his first Cup title in 2009, only to be thwarted by Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, 36, who will share the front row with Martin on Sunday, says he can only hope to keep up with the competition when he’s Martin’s age.
"I’ve been able to pick his brain and understand him on many levels," Johnson said. "One, his passion for the sport; he’s tried to retire a few times, but just can’t do it. That fire still burns in him. The other part that’s really cool is he’s created this opportunity. He’s wanted to run a limited schedule. He’s been able to do it a couple of times, and he’s found a great situation there at MWR.
"And then mentally and physically, the work that he puts in and has put in over the years keeps him in this position. There are guys a decade younger than he is with back issues and knee issues at a much younger age. Mark has worked through some of those issues himself, but has worked hard on his physical fitness. If you are strong physically, it’s also good for the mind. And he’s covered those bases and continues to show it."
Ryan Newman, known affectionately as "Rocketman" for his qualifying prowess, will roll off third for Sunday’s Cup race. Having raced against Martin throughout his entire career, the 34-year-old believes "age or whatever else has nothing to do with the abilities of driving a race car."
"He’s an awesome qualifier," Newman said of Martin. "Look at his stats. He keeps putting another notch in the belt; two to my one, it seems like in the last couple of years. So I’ve been trying to chase him down.
"He’s got a little bit of age on me, but he’s always been a great qualifier, there’s no doubt about that. So I don’t think that age or whatever else has anything to do with the abilities of driving a race car."
Like Martin, Biffle’s breakthrough opportunity with Roush came after years of paying dues. Biffle was 32 when he made his first start as a Roush racer and didn’t run full time until the following year in 2003. Now 41, the Roush Fenway driver credits his longevity in the sport with being able to adapt to change.
"It’s almost like doing anything. If you’ve done it a bunch of times you know what to do and what not to do," Biffle said. "But you can’t be afraid to explore different things. You have to know how to get your car right. You have to have a team that works hard to get your car right. You have to have a good crew chief to make the right calls.
"It takes a team effort, but at the same time experience really shines through. But I always experiment. I’m always willing to try new things because I know that (they will) put a nail in the coffin if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That’s the kind of thing I won’t let happen. If you’re willing to try, then you’re always going to be there."
Martin agrees with his former teammate about remaining relevant in the sport. He’s experienced his share of changes with the cars and technology throughout his three decades in Cup.
"I’ve been through everything that you can think of in my career, from the setups that we run today with the COT cars, the bump stops and which side you bump stop ’em on, whether you run rear bars or not, or what kind of front bar you run. Or revert a little farther back to coil binding the other cars. That was something that was completely revolutionary. On back to how you hung your bodies on those older cars and where you wanted your sideforce — if you wanted in the front or the back of your car.
"If you want to keep up with the revolutionaries in this business, you have to be willing to sample every single idea that’s out there and evaluate it and do a good job of whether you need to progress down that road or not."
As long as Martin’s willing to keep an open mind, he may be here for the next generation of NASCAR stars, too.