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Mark Martin's last wind-up is looking like it may be one of his best....

Remember Mark Martin (01) vs Kevin Harvick (29) in the 2007 Daytona 500? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Mulhern

   Mark Martin! What a long, strange trip it's been, to get to this point in his seemingly endless NASCAR career, that started way back in 1981, when he was just 22.
   And now?
   Martin says he's still on a journey of discovery.
   He may be 50 but team owner Rick Hendrick says his newest driver has the heart and soul and physique and desire of a 35-year-old.
  And Jeff Gordon calls his new teammate "the most talented race car driver there is. I mean the guy is just a natural. And he works hard at it. And he keeps himself in great shape.
   "He's very disciplined and dedicated and driven. A very competitive guy.
   "You put him in top-notch equipment, and there's just no telling what he's capable of doing.
   "He's just incredible."
   "There are guys in their 30s who aren't in as good a shape as Mark is, or as dedicated to this sport as Mark is," Hendrick says. "With Mark's drive and desire…he wants to do it in the worst way.
   "I can't tell you how excited I am about Mark. I just like to be around him, and the way he compliments his team, and if something happens he takes it upon himself.
   "He's just a great ambassador for our sport.
   "And I've seen a lot of guys who can drive a car that's out of control, who can set up a car in three laps….and Mark is as good at that as I've ever seen."
    Carl Edwards, a former teammate, says "We all marvel at Mark Martin. He's like the fountain of youth.
   "He's tough and driven and competitive.
   "We tested at Vegas once, and I'd just run a blistering lap, one that felt really good….and then they told me 'Mark was about half-a-tenth quicker.'
   "I mean, that's Mark Martin.
    "You put Mark Martin in the chase with ten races to go, and it's going to be tough. You're going to have to beat Mark Martin to win the championship."
   So can the ageless racer from Arkansas really make the NASCAR championship chase this season? That's what his rivals and his teammates are expecting….though Martin himself says he just wants to get a couple of good races under his belt first.
   Martin, easily one of the best ever NASCAR racers to never win the title, has come so close so many times, and this looks like his last great shot.
   And he's ready for the battle….though cautious about setting any goals.

Mark Martin (L) credits new teammate Jeff Gordon (R) for helping make the sell that put him in a Hendrick car this season (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Taking two years of a limited schedule has given me a chance to completely recharge my battery, and given me a completely different mindset on what it is that is really important to me and what I really want to do," Martin says. "My buddies that are race car drivers -- I thought it was pretty funny last fall, when they were all in a bad mood, and tired and grouchy -- all those things I used to be -- and I never felt that last season.
   "And it seems like the off-season has been a year.  Knowing since June that I was going to drive that car has just been a lot of anticipation.  I can't wait. 
    "I've been in the car once in September, once in August, and once in December. And, wow, it's cool."
    There is no denying the enthusiasm Martin is bringing to his new team this season, and it appears infectious.  And of course Martin is characteristically humble about it all: "I'm so thankful for the opportunity…for the confidence they've had in me to give me a chance to drive for an operation like that. 
    "Every time I come home from the race shop I have a huge smile on my face.
   "And I just can't tell you how extraordinary a person Rick Hendrick is. And how much I want to be around him. He is so much fun.
   "I didn't put any emphasis on having fun 'back in the day,' but it's very important to me now – being happy and having fun.

    While others may see great things for Martin this season, he himself is more cautious.
   "Let's see, let's see," Martin says of the push to make a title contender. "We have more immediate things to focus on -- and that is to get Alan Gustafson (his new crew chief) and the team the results they're so capable of.
    "If we could win a race, that would really be cool.
    "If we could make the chase….well, rather than putting great expectations up, I would much more prefer the more immediate task at hand --  just coming out of the gate.
   "You know me – I've experienced a lot of stuff in racing, and I understand the disappointments just like I understand the success. And it would be setting yourself up for disappointment if you expected that end result.
    "It's not time to talk about that; that's not what I need to do. What I need to do is come in here and go to work with these guys and do like I said. 
    "It can be incredible, it could be incredible.  Everything is there. 
    "But that's a very delicate balance to get those results. 
    "You can only guarantee effort.   
    "And the degree of my commitment is greater or as great as I've ever given. 
    "The team is ready. But results we can't guarantee.
    "I had a great time last year driving the 8 car (for Dale Earnhardt Inc).  I had the time of my life. And I hope to have the time of my life again in 2009.
    "First I started getting happy in 2007 (his season as a part-time racer).  I was having fun, because I was racing when I wanted, in a fast car, working with a bunch of guys having fun.
     "Then I got a chance to drive Rick Hendrick's Busch car, and that was a really, really cool experience.
    "And in 2007 I had a chance to win (the Daytona 500). And when Jeff Gordon was going to have their baby, there was a possibility I might drive his car at Sears Point, so I went over to their shop and fitted a seat.
    "So I learned a lot about Hendrick Motorsports that I didn't know before, because I was inside the walls.
    "It sort of built momentum from there….and last June we made this deal.
    "Every time I go to the shop, I get more excited, because I find out more and see more about just what an incredible organization it is."
    In 2005 and 2006 all Martin could talk about was getting out of the rat race of the full-time Cup tour. He was set for semi-retirement, and a fun career racing Trucks. Then he got an unexpected opportunity to run a part-time Cup schedule, and he jumped at it. And jumped from Ford's Jack Roush to Chevrolet, after 19 years with Roush, in quite a shocker.
    Now Martin says he's back for one last full-time Cup tour run.
    Where does this new-found drive come from?
    "Taking good care of yourself makes a difference -- your nutrition program, your physical fitness program….and there's also no substitute for desire," Martin says.
   "You can't really let things be affected by your age.  Some guys at 40 or 45 have started a decline in their desire. But my desire has not declined at all. 
   "As a matter of fact, the opportunity to drive the 8 car last year and have a shot at winning a couple of races really made me more hungry than ever.
    "I want to win a race right now so bad, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes. I'll work as hard as it takes.
    "My physical fitness program is on another level from where it ever was. 
    "And I must be lucky, really must be lucky -- I thought in 2004 and 2005 that my performance had declined, and that I couldn't control what was happening…and that I wasn't going to be able to be competitive.
   "But I had a really good year in 2007 and a really good year in 2008…and I have a lot of people who have confidence in what I can do."
   Martin is so fired up about racing right now, it's downright scary.
   "When I can't do this anymore, I don't know what the hell I'm going to do, because there is nothing like it," Martin says. "There's nothing like being able to go out there and race like we raced at Phoenix in the first race or in the second Pocono race. 
    "When you drive to the front and lead, there's no feeling like it in the world.
    "And I don't know what I'll do when I can't do that. 
    "But I still can right now…and so I'm really appreciative for this opportunity.
   "Alan Gustafson is the coolest guy I've ever met. He is so technically over my head I don't even want him to stop and explain.
    "This is the year I hope Alan and the team get recognized for their incredible group. That means more to me than what I get."

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