Could Sunday be the day Mark Martin finally breaks Harry Gant’s record as the oldest victor in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series?
Gant was 52 when he won his 18th and final career race in the Champion Sparkplug 400 at Michigan Speedway on Aug. 16, 1992.
Martin — the pole sitter in Sunday’s Subway 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — turned 54 on Jan. 9.
After he won his second consecutive pole for this race on Friday, Martin said yes, he could imagine what it would mean to earn his 41st career victory.
In 2009, he earned his second victory from the pole here on the one-mile track. That season, Martin won five times, including his last victory to date, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September at age 50.
For the ever-humble Martin, “records don’t mean much.” He remembers what it was like to be schooled by Gant during his first of three decades in the sport.
“Whether I was to break that record or not, I look at Harry Gant and don’t feel I measure,” Martin said. “That’s just me.
“I have the respect — I was there with him and had the pleasure of racing with him and (getting) beat by him on a regular occasion. We’ll always look at him as someone who accomplished more than I did. He was the guy I couldn’t beat at the time. He’s an incredible guy.”
Martin took those lessons to heart — and it made him a well-rounded driver. In Gant’s heyday, strenuous workout routines — such as the one Martin practices today — were not the norm.
"Handsome Harry” stayed in shape by roofing and other construction projects and remained in the Cup Series until he was 54 — the same age Martin is today.
“I don’t know that my training in my prime made me a better race-car driver, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the longevity of my career is dependent on that commitment,” Martin said.
“I said it last week, and I had some people make some snide remarks about it, but at this stage of the game it’s pretty amazing that I get to drive a race car for a team like this that truly has a chance — a chance to win.
“We were close two or three times last year — and they were close with two other drivers. So it’s amazing what they’ve been able to do with that car.”
Kasey Kahne (age 32, for comparison) will share the front row with Martin. While he’s surprised that some of his stiffest competition comes from a 54-year-old, knowing it’s Martin behind the wheel changes his perspective.
“I think we all know going into it that he can,” Kahne said.
“I watch everybody qualify when he goes out, he’s probably the guy more than anyone else that’s probably going to beat me. It’s just the way it is with Mark right now. Last year it was the same way. I think he has a really good connection with the situation he’s in and they’re fast when it comes to qualifying every week.”
Not surprisingly, Martin topped the speed chart in Happy Hour with a lap of 134.248 mph.
Martin acknowledges that he is “really grateful” for the opportunity afforded him at Michael Waltrip Racing. He’s been able to compete on his own terms for the last two seasons under the direction of crew chief Rodney Childress in top-of-the-line equipment. And when Martin feels like taking a break, he turns over the driving duties to Waltrip or Brian Vickers.
“I’m really thankful for the success we already have,” Martin said. “We ran third in the Daytona 500. We sat on the pole here. I’m grateful for what we’ve done.
“Going forward, I will try to win every competition that I enter — or at least be a great representative of MWR in every competition.”
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . . .
Jimmie Johnson is a rock star when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series, but on the Nationwide side of the garage? Not so much.
In just Johnson’s second NNS start since 2008, he qualified seventh for Saturday’s Dollar General 200, and finished 12th.
“I need to get better here,” Johnson said of his reason for running the companion event. “This track’s been a little tough on me in the Cup car since the repave (in 2011), and what a better way to learn the track than to get out in a race?"
0 — Points difference in the Nationwide Series standings between Sam Hornish Jr. and Justin Allgaier.
52 — Career Nationwide Series wins for Kyle Busch.
75 — Toyota wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, 41 earned by Busch.
Danica Patrick — who qualified 40th for Sunday’s race after her eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 — on her learning curve:
“It is difficult to say where I should be at a certain point in time, because you just don’t know at what point in time that an athlete or driver something is going to click and make sense, and you figure something out, and get more comfortable.
"I guess I would say the most important thing overall, if you look at the big picture, is to learn and grow. Good races and good finishes can just happen, and sometimes you don’t know why. Sometimes it’s because of other people’s misfortunes, your luck — which is a big part of the sport. But, learning is something that is going to pay off over time far more than being lucky one weekend.”