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The classiest act in NASCAR: Mark Martin finally wins again


Mark Martin gets a handshake from teammate Jimmie Johnson, who came into Saturday night's 500K with three straight wins at Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Hey, man, how about that Mark Martin!
   And Saturday night's rocking win here couldn't be more popular.
   Not since the late Dale Earnhardt's long-awaited Daytona 500 win in 1998 perhaps has there been such an emotionally fulfilling win as this one.
   And it wasn't that a 50-year-old stock car racing star won, as rare as that has been over the years. Mark Martin is no ordinary 50-year-old….and his coolness in action in this three-hour even was almost stunning to watch. He had a good car, a fast car, and he started from the pole…but he seemed to grow even stronger and confident as the night went on.
   There was never a fade, never even a point of fading.
   And at the end of it all, Martin himself seemed a changed man, in some way – a man who has finally conquered something really big.
    When he eventually escaped victory lane and got to meet the press, he was showing an unexpected sense of confidence, and it showed clearly in his eyes and his manner.
   "Man, that was pretty awesome. Great car, great pit stops, great strategy," Martin said.
   "I'm going to enjoy this more than any other win.
   "But this thing isn't over. This is just eight races. And I've still got more work to do.
   "A lot of pressure on us coming in here. I've carried a lot of weight on my shoulders, because I've really, really, really wanted to win. But I couldn't get my fingers around a win.
   "But after the final practice I could sense this could be the night.
   "It's overwhelming. This is very, very overwhelming for me. I'd hoped it would happen… but I didn't know it would happen.
   "This might not be as dramatic as Tim Richmond's win, coming  back from that illness, but it's darn big for me.
   "It's cool…it's just a cool night."

Mark Martin celebrated his first tour win since 2005 with a fitting Polish Victory Lap tribute to his old buddy the late Alan Kulwicki (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Alan Gustafson, his crew chief, and one of the more unsung crew chiefs in the sport, is finally back in the limelight, really for the first time since
   "The start to the season wasn't what I'd expected, not what we deserved. And we'd had a dismal season last year. But Mr. Hendrick's support never wavered.
   "I'd made a pact with myself that if I ever got lucky enough to have Mark Martin drive my cars, we were going to win.
   "Age is irrelevant when it comes to Mark.
   "Mark has more drive than probably any other person I've ever met in my life.
   "I really enjoy his working man's ethic."
   And Martin's class act is simply amazing. At Daytona in the spring of 2007, when he lost the Daytona 500 – which he's never won – by just feet, in a controversial finish, he declined to criticize the NASCAR call that might have cost him the win.
    Class. That's Mark Martin.
    That's why his win here was so wildly popular, not only with his rivals but with the sport's fans.
    Championship now?
   Martin has never won a NASCAR Cup title.
   "I didn't take this ride for one last chance at a championship," Martin insists now.
    "Now I'll give it hell. But I took this ride to drive a fast race car and win races.
   "Now it will be disappointing if we don't make the chase. And it looked bad when we were sitting 35th or what."
   The team was mired 34th in the standings after Atlanta last month. Now Martin and Gustafson are 13th in the standings and just nine points behind the 12th-man cutoff.
   "'But I'm not going to ruin a good time by worrying about points," Martin said. "Let me have fun, let me enjoy this.
   "This is the chance of a lifetime."
   Putting this win in perspective best was perhaps Kurt Busch, who finished third. Busch is just 28 and now pondering just what it might be like to still be doing this at 50, and he offered a wry tribute to Martin: "When I was just a kid growing up, my dad gave me Mark Martin's book "Strength training……"
   Martin's strength training program is famous in this sport.
   And Martin's career in this sport began back in the early 1980s. In his early years he was a wild man. Then he hit a rough spot, vanished….until Jack Roush picked him in 1988 to take over his then-fledgling program.
   "I got a second chance when I got with Jack Roush…and most people don't get a second chance," Martin said. "Careers like this you don't usually get a chance to resurrect."
   And with all those thoughts racing through his mind during this race….well, afterwards "I wasn't going to do a burnout, you all know that," Martin said.
   So he did Alan Kulwicki's 'Polish Victory Lap.'
   When Kulwicki, the 1992 NASCAR champion, won his first NASCAR Cup race – right here in 1988 – he did a reverse victory lap around the track.
   "That came to me immediately," Martin said of the move, noting he raced for years against Kulwicki, both in ASA and in NASCAR. "I've had a lot of thoughts about Alan, and what an incredible competitor he was, and where he might be today."
   But Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash in 1993.
   When Martin finally got to victory lane Saturday night he was mobbed by rivals and long-time friends, in a scene reminiscent of the pit road line.
   "The response from the competitors was really incredible. That means more than the trophy," Martin said. "All the guys, including jack Roush…
   "Jack and I are as tight as we've ever been. I'm as huge a fan of Jack Roush as I've ever been. And he's just as big a fan of mine."
   And whipping all these 'youngsters'?
    "I don't have any problems keeping up with any 25-year-olds here…at least for the next 20 minutes, because I've got such an adrenalin rush," Martin said with a laugh.
   But Martin was as somber as well as happy: "I certainly don't want to let anybody down. I want the result to equal the effort. On their side as much as my side.
   "And we didn't fall into this one."
   And yet where was Rick Hendrick, the man who helped make Saturday night's historic victory possible?
    Hendrick doesn't attend all the tour events, but it did seem oddly ironic that the veteran car owner -- who has been at this sport for some 25 years, but not nearly as long as Martin himself -- had skipped the Subway 500K, after just skipping Texas and Jeff Gordon's history-making win there.

Champagne?! Hey, Mark, are you sure that's on the strength-training power food list? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





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