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Is it Mark Martin's turn to add to Rick Hendrick's streak at Phoenix?


Mark's Day? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   It was Kansas City, back in 2005, when Mark Martin last won. But this season he's been close to snapping that winless string, and starting from the pole in Saturday night's Phoenix 500K, he should have a good shot at helping car owner Rick Hendrick pad his victory run here.
   "I love coming here," Martin says. "I believe it was '93 when we sat on the pole and won the race out here. I
   "I've had a lot of great races here…I had great battles with Ernie Irvan here."
   But this time the chief opposition is very easy to spot: "When we beat Jimmie Johnson to win a race, I’m going to feel like I beat Superman."
   And it may take a superhuman effort to beat the guy who's won the last three here.
   "We are very proud of the performance we've had on the track all year -- These guys gave me a top-10 car in every single race," Martin says. "We may have had some trouble, but we've had fast race cars.
    "But I told (crew chief) Alan Gustafson after Texas -- that I'm very proud of our performance….but if we're going to win, we're going to have to step it up one more notch.
    "I have underestimated that last little bit of speed that is going to come from Alan and me working together for a long time. They just shot me right out there in about a sixth-place car….which is about where I ran in all the races.
    "I was running fourth in Vegas when we blew up. We were running fourth in Atlanta.
    "We've hovered around sixth a lot in all the other races.
     "And it's a thrill to drive stuff like that.
     "But if we want to win, we've got to get that last little bit.
   "Maybe this is a start in the right direction. It may be not every last ounce of it, but we need just a little bit more.
    "But until I get the chance to experience all those little nuances in Hendrick' box of tools, I can't tell them 'This, this, this, and this.'
    "They could put 100 things out in front of me, and I only get to pick five. We did try a lot of things in Texas that we won't have to try again."
    Yet even after knowing Mark Martin all these years, really since 1981, and talking with him at length so many times, and following him, it's sometimes hard to understand just where he is inside his head.
    But he is certainly a lot more optimistic than he used to be. And that's good.
    "I've seen a lot of things, and done a lot of things….and there's as much, or more, pressure now as there was then," Martin says.
   "I feel as much or more pressure -- because every time I strap down in that race car, I feel like I am being judged.
    "Or I am judging myself.
    "We have a little bit of work to do, but we have a lot of time to get there. Maybe we can get up there and contend for some wins.
    "A win before the year's up.
     "I feel we are making progress together."

The brain trust: Mark Martin (L), crew chief Alan Gustafson (C), and team owner Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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