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Title-challenger Mark Martin, and his 42 rivals, are waiting for a break in Sunday's weather

  The face of determination (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.
   Mark Martin says he's "all in" down the stretch this season, and it certainly shows.
   And it may well show in the Pennsylvania 500, whenever the rain breaks and lets NASCAR go green.
   For a guy long known for his work ethic -- and tendency to burn out – Martin has insisted all season that he's in this season for the fun of it, though determined to make the most of his first year with car owner Rick Hendrick.
   Now he looks like he's about to step it up a notch.
   "In 2005 and 2006 I was really, really burned out. I was emotionally and physically drained," Martin says.
    "Although I still had great passion for racing, it wasn't like it is now.
    "Then I had a chance for two years where I took 24 weekends off and had a chance to do all the things I wanted to do and get rested.
    "Now there's no place in the world I rather be this weekend than at Pocono….where maybe two or three years ago I might have been thinking 'Boy, I wish I was on the beach somewhere.'
     "I'm mentally the toughest I've ever been in my career right now.
    "And your attitude has a lot to do with whether or not you're having fun: You can do the same thing with a good attitude and have a blast, or you can have a bad attitude and do those same things and be miserable.
    "All those things are really working in my favor right now. I've got a good attitude."
    Will it be enough to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship? He's ninth in the standings with six races till the playoff cut; and he's one of nine men battling for the last seven spots in the chase, it appears.
   "I'm exploiting every strength -- all my strengths -- to the max," Martin says.
    "Rather than focusing on my short-comings, I'm really focusing on my strengths.
    "My training has been huge, and nutrition, health and fitness have played a huge part in it. But that's not all of it.
    "Somehow I have managed to stay hungry -- and have the fire and desire….by knowing I can see somewhere out there the end of this, and I want to make the most of it while I can. So I'm having a blast."
    And he's not looking back at all those title run disappointments: "You have to understand I can't relive 1998 or 1990 or any of those….those are distant memories."
   But Martin knows without all those heartbreaks "I wouldn't be the person I am today had I not gone through all those things.
    "It scares me to think about achieving instant success like I did to start with -- The first five races I ran I had two poles, a third and a seventh-place finish.
    "Had that continued for me I certainly wouldn't be the man I am today.
    "The hardship, heartbreak, the humility…a very, very humbling experience ever getting here…and a character-building experience.
    "The 19 years I spent with Jack Roush were important years in my career, and I have absolutely no regrets."
   But this season, to be one of his last, since he's turned 50,  "I'm living the moment…I'm living it every day. And certainly loving it.
    "I never imagined I could be having this much fun, or this much success, or be this happy out here racing every week."
   Nevertheless the title chase is clearly more and more on his mind….or at least making the 12-man cut: "For us we can't have any more stubbed toes. If we don't stub our toe we should be fine."
    Here? Martin may be the best driver in the field who still hasn't at this big, long track.
   "This has been a good race track for me," Martin says. "A really good race track.
   "It's been a bit of a surprise we haven't won, because we've run so well so many times.
    "We were dominating this race last year and didn't manage to close the deal -- some trouble on pit road.
    "We've been good (this season), but we need to take a step up from where we were last time here. So we're going to use a different thought process."
    And Martin himself has a different thought process from when he was so much younger:  "When I was 35 I thought this would never end.
    "In 1990, when we wound up second in the points and missed the championship by 26 points -- and we got a 46-point penalty -- it was no big deal, because I knew there were going to be more.
    "I could see no end to all this.
    "At this stage in my career I understand that the opportunity for me to win four races in half a season, there are probably not 20 more years of that.
    "I understand this won't last forever. And this is the best it's ever been for me.
    "I'm at the best place in my life mentally, physically, emotionally.
    "And by the way I'm having the most fun and getting as good of a result as I ever have, if not better.
    "I'm willing to work as hard as it takes to continue that, and to stay at the level I'm at…whether it's training, nutrition, having your head in the game, meetings, you name it.
    "Whatever it takes I'm willing to do.
     "I'm not trying to skate along here and ride this thing out. I'm all in. Everything I've got is in."

   Crew chief Alan Gustafson (R) and Mark Martin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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