Greg Biffle: Time is running out for some big NASCAR stars (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
A changing of the guard?
Greg Biffle says it's coming.
Just look at the birthdays.
"The list is pretty long, isn't it," Biffle says of NASCAR's over-40 and soon-to-be-40 demographic.
"It's the harsh reality," Biffle concedes. "The shifting of the flag, whatever you want to call it.
"I'm not driving till I'm Mark's age."
Demographics isn't only an issue for this sport's ticket sellers and TV producers, it's also an interesting issue in the NASCAR garage.
Some of this sport's biggest stars are over 40, and that's traditionally a demarcation line.
However NASCAR drivers the past several years have embarked on major physical fitness programs. Well, Tony Stewart may still boast of his Burger King workouts.....
And no one, except perhaps Carl Edwards, demonstrates that physical fitness ethos more impressively than Mark Martin.
NASCAR's Media Day production: classy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Martin is setting a new standard in this sport every day he sits down at the wheel. He just turned 54, but with his intense physical fitness regimen he's in better shape than most of his rivals.
Martin ran his first Cup race in the spring of 1981. And 32 years later he's still going strong. Last season was one of his best lately, and he could have won four times, at Texas, Pocono, Richmond and Dover. He had the fastest car at a number of tracks, as another piece of that remarkable turnaround at Michael Waltrip's.
Is Martin going for Red Farmer's record as the 'most ageless racer' in stock car history? Alabama's Farmer, who is anywhere from 80 to 84 (he insists he's not sure just when he was born), ran his first race in 1948. Farmer ran a legendary Hudson Hornet on the Daytona beach course in 1953, and he's still a regular at Talladega Short Track, in late models, at the dirt track just across the street from the big track. (And Farmer still takes Tony Stewart fishing on Logan Martin when the big tour's in town.)
Ageless Red Farmer. Still hard at it, at, what 80, 84? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I don't know what his record is, but I'm definitely not going after Red Farmer's record," Martin says with a laugh. "He's a bad-ass for sure."
So what is Martin's game plan? What is his next big goal? What does he want to do in racing that he hasn't already done?
"I suppose a lot of people would say 'If I can just do this one thing, that's what I want to do,'" Martin says philosophically. "I'm realistic -- that only sets you up for being crushed. And I've been crushed in this sport too many times. I was crushed in this sport as a young man.
"And I don't do that," he says of goals. "I'm smarter than that now.
"Any race win would put me over the moon. Winning the Daytona 500 would put me over the galaxy. The Brickyard would be great.
"But I'll take a win at any place on the schedule that I can get my hands on.
"All you can do is try. The wins either come or they don't come."
Ricky Stenhouse: hate to break the news, but it looks like rivals, even teammates, are going to be breaking hard on the rookie. Good thing Ricky is tough. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Martin remains intensely focused. The new 2013s? A new setup, he frets: "I had a rear (sway) bar setup that really, really worked well for me....but now we don't have that. As we develop this season and find something I really love, we'll gain."
After testing the new cars, Martin insists there's really not that much different, not in the grand scheme of things. "This is not reinventing the wheel," he says. "I felt the biggest change was the aesthetics, the appearance of the cars. And that is a huge improvement in manufacturer identity.
"But the basic mechanical stuff of the cars is relatively close. They (NASCAR) did some things, like taking 'skew' out of the cars (the 'crab-walking' gimmick) to keep the cars from running as crooked. But they gave us something else to compensate for that...so at the end of the day, the difference isn't dramatic.
"It's not like going from the 1979 'big' cars down to the notchback cars. Now that was dramatic.
"And going to the COT (in 2007) was dramatic too.
"This is just a subtle improvement in everything except the aesthetics."
Mark Martin is a living history book of this sport.
James Hylton. Remember when he and Richard Childress were promising up-and-comers in this sport? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So is James Hylton.
Remember James Hylton, the long-time independent who is entered in SpeedWeeks' 50th running of the ARCA 200....at 78.
Hylton says this season will be his 'farewell tour.'
"I've been thinking about this for quite a while," Hylton says. "I'm 78, and the time has come.
"It's time to step aside as a driver and turn this car over to the younger generation.
"If I could drive until I was 90, I would. But I need to face the facts."
Did we mention it was NASCAR Media Day? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Biffle, who was Martin's teammate for several years, is no teenager.
Biffle just turned 43, but he's showing no signs of slowing down.
And The Biff certainly hasn't lost his touch. He was one of the hottest drivers last season, atop the Sprint Cup standings 14 weeks, with two wins (Texas and Michigan) and 12 top-fives, and a solid runner for the title until those September stumbles.
"Now I'm not retiring any time soon....but let's take a five-year time span: there is a potential for six of us, or so, to retire all basically in the same year," Biffle says. "And that could change the face of the sport."
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. too....
"Now I don't know what Jeff Gordon's plans are, or Tony Stewart's. And I don't know mine either," Biffle says.
"But I'm not driving till I'm 55, I'm telling you that.
"So I'm looking at the group of guys right below us....and I'd probably need a lineup: you've got Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski.
"Jimmie Johnson, well, he's in-between, like Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He's 40, isn't he? No, 39?"
Actually Earnhardt turns 39 this fall.
It's not always easy to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On the other end of this teeter-totter is Joey Logano.
He's just 22, but with four years of Sprint Cup tour experience, and wins at New Hampshire and Pocono.
Logano concedes racing at this level has been tougher than he anticipated. Remember this is the guy that Martin discovered as a short-track unknown some 10 years ago, a guy who even back then Martin himself said was ready right then to race at the Cup level.
Well, it's taken Logano a bit longer to learn that racing in this division involved more than driving talent and smarts.
"The competition level is the big thing -- You are racing with 43 guys who can win a race at any moment," Logano says.
"If you put everyone in equal cars, then everyone is capable of doing something pretty impressive.
"Racing against really good drivers makes it mean a lot when you win a race. It means a ton."
Rivals naturally don't make it easy. In fact some go out of their way to make it tough, as Logano has learned.
This season Logano has a new owner, Roger Penske, a new car maker, Ford, a new engine builder, Doug Yates, a new crew chief, a new sponsor, Shell-Pennzoil, and a new teammate, wild and crazy Brad Keselowski.
Working for Roger Penske is quite different than working for Joe Gibbs.
The Penske operation is much more 'buttoned up.'
Jeans are not an option.
And those white shirts better have good starch.
Heavy starch, please. New teammates Joey Logano (L) and Brad Keselowski. Wonder if pal Joey plans to be as social-media-active as Brad? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Growing up in NASCAR, and in the glare of this spotlight, where every mistake and controversy is magnified, has toughened Logano.
"It forces you to grow up really quick," he says. "Quicker than your age really allows you.
"I was forced to grow up really quick when they threw me in the Cup car at 18.
"Was I mature enough to go drive it at the time? I could drive it. But to go win? Probably not. That was something that you have to have some life experience with stuff like that to get you up to that level. You have to go through some things."
And it's all played out on a very big stage.
"You guys have seen it firsthand," Logano says dryly. "How you are going to deal with people and lead a team... and how you are going to deal with situations on and off the track. Handling conflicts.
"Just racing too. Racing different situations out there.
"There are a lot of things going on that you have to go through the experiences.
"Someone can tell you a million times, but until you do it yourself you don't know.
"My work mentality has not changed; I am still working as hard as I possibly can.
"It is just learning things. You are coming in as a blank slate.
"How do you learn quicker? Maybe that would be the question I would ask myself.
"I thought I was prepared back then, but I wasn't.
"Now I really am. I feel it.
"I am getting to a level of trying to know where I need to be before I get down here."
Clint Bowyer. Doesn't look happy. Thinking about Jeff Gordon's Phoenix road rage perhaps. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And any advice for newcomers to NASCAR?
"Expect the unexpected," Logano says. "That is the big thing.
"There are a lot of random things that come up, and a lot of different things. Each person will handle things differently.
"You can take my experiences and maybe you will be better or worse at it. Maybe it will be something completely different.
"For the most part I would say it is a lot of work, and you have to realize that this is what you have wanted to do your whole life.
"It isn't fun every day. But I am still getting to drive a race car for a living, which is cool."
Michael Waltrip (C), flanked by Brandon Davis (L) and Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead, unveiling their Daytona 500 car, honoring the 26 victims of the Newtown, CT shooting (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)