Mark Martin laughs often. He smiles and jokes with his competitors, seems genuinely in admiration of his teammates and thrilled to be back behind the wheel full time.
He’s 50 years old but brings the enthusiasm of a 20-something to the sport. In some ways, it’s hard to believe he’s raced for more than 20 consecutive seasons. In others, it seems as if he’s been around even longer.
Martin gained acclaim in the sport racing along side Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip. He’s battled Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart for titles. He helped build what is known as Roush Fenway Racing into a dynasty.
He’s outlasted sponsors and a generation of competitors. He’s competed in the Cup ranks through three name changes.
Yet, he’s refreshed and recharged this season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports.
For much of his career, rightly or wrongly, Martin was viewed as somewhat of a pessimist. He would often candidly assert after a win that it could be his last and therefore, should be enjoyed. He refused to talk about championships and his potential legacy in NASCAR. He’s lived in the land of high expectations before and, aware of the disappointment that it can craft, refused to return there.
So he simply did not.
That remains true today, but somehow it is viewed differently. Perhaps that’s because Martin himself seems different these days.
He just seems happier.
Martin has, at times, seemed giddy this season and will tell anyone who will listen how much he is enjoying this season. Even his teammates, who have competed against his for years, have taken note.
“Look at Mark, the guy is non-stop.” Jimmie Johnson, who tabbed him the Bionic Man Sunday, says. “… He is one unique individual. I think he’s almost happy, too. He’s getting there. Scary, right?”
Martin has fined-tuned that ability to enjoy the wins — he has four this season — and top performances and appears ready to roll with the punches when things go wrong. Certainly he’s not immune to the harsh realities of those setbacks. He’s lived much of the season outside of or near the cutoff for the Chase For The Sprint Cup and admits it would be heartbreaking to see his team miss that field since he respects crew chief Alan Gustafson and his group so much.
For years, Martin has honed the ability to manage working with younger talent while also competing at the Cup level.
Apparently, he still takes time to mentor other drivers.
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“He’s always been so big, and I keep asking him questions,” Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Juan Pablo Montoya said earlier this season. “He’s been a big help. It’s funny because he’s been around so long that he understands this car, he understands the business and he’s a cool guy to have around like that.”
He’s been around so long that drivers he’s fostered since they were young are now the ones competing against him. Like 19-year-old Joey Logano, who Martin has touted for years as the next big thing for the Cup series.
“He’s been an idol of mine since I was real little,” Logano says.
Now, he’s one that’s back with a team that can showcase his talent. While he refuses to discuss any possibility of a championship — Martin has been a runner-up four times but has never won the title — he does speak well and insightfully about his season each week. Even when things aren’t going his way. He has a series-leading four wins this season but is only ninth in the standings. Still, he’s not publicly getting caught up in any will he-won’t he talk.
Instead, he remains intently focused while also finding the lighter side of the sport.
And he seems to be enjoying every minute of it. Just look at how he’s reacting to his season.
On being passed late and finishing second at Indy: “I’m actually just grateful that I had a chance to race for the win.”
On sitting on the Chase bubble and heading into a restrictor-plate race: “You go out here and you race and we take our lumps and we take our good days. Some days we get more than we deserve, and some days we don’t get what we deserve. We just go out here and do our thing and hope it turns out well.”
On his up-and-down season: “I wouldn’t trade much of what has been going on for anything. I’m just really elated to have the opportunity to experience three wins and the opportunity to work with Alan and my team with the five car and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. And I am really, really, really proud of them and proud of what we have accomplished, and we’ll just keep fighting every day. But I certainly wouldn’t trade our season for a consistent one that hadn’t won. That’s for sure.”
On whether he ever feels his age: “That adrenaline is something, there’s nothing like it. When I’m pumped up driving fast racecars, I certainly don’t feel 50. But I do on Monday mornings … These guys have made me feel really, really good and really special. Even on the days when I stub my toe, they’re the first ones to pat me on the back.”
Those around him admire his physical fitness, his respectful style of racing, his attitude. Crew chief Alan Gustafson speaks of Martin showing his intelligence in how he manages races. Team owner Rick Hendrick points out the raw talent Martin brings to the sport. Others see him as a guy they want to be around on the track.
“Mark is very much a gentleman when it comes to giving and taking,” Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman said.
But Martin just takes it all in — both the good and the bad.
This year, he’s keeping it all in perspective.
How does he view things?
“It’s been my day this year, all year,” he says.
Rea White is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.