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Rick Hendrick has no hesitation in signing Mark Martin to a 2011 contract...and with good reason

   Mark Martin is still in the driver's seat....and wasn't this guy ready to 'retire' to the Truck series back in 2005? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Mark Martin is simply ageless.
   A Bobby Allison, a Dale Earnhardt Sr….some day maybe even a Hershel McGriff or Red Farmer.
   And this season already is one of his best-ever. Not only that, but he's opening the championship chase atop the Sprint Cup standings.
   Little wonder that Rick Hendrick, when given his druthers, picked Martin for another two seasons on the tour, despite Martin's age – he'll turn 51 in January.
    Remember all that retirement talk Martin was dishing out a few years ago?
    What happened? "Simple answer is I changed my mind."
    And Martin is certainly glad he did.
    "After a good race, I feel exactly like I felt when I was 30," Martin says. "I do manage 'energy' a little bit, to make darn sure I've got just as much as anyone else when duty calls.
    "I don't feel 25. And I don't know what you're supposed to feel like at 50, but I feel pretty good. And I manage my energy -- and everything -- a little differently than I did when I was 25.
   "For 21 years I've strength-trained. I'm better and more knowledgeable than I've ever been, even a year ago, about nutrition and strength training and cardio fitness. I'm smarter now than I was a year ago."
   Despite facing another title run – and remember how all those stretch battles took such a toll on him for so many years? – Martin insists he's not doing this in the hope of finally winning that championship which has eluded him so many years.
   "It's the love of racing, it really doesn't have anything to do with the championship," Martin says. "I didn't take this job with dreams of winning the championship. I took it because I knew it was going to be a fast race car and I wanted to drive a fast race car and have a chance to win another race.
   "We've exceeded my expectations.
   "We certainly will race with every ounce we have for the championship; but that's 10 races away, and who knows what happens between now and then.
   "But it's because I love what I do…and because I'm still competitive."
   But the new sponsor…..Hmmm. GoDaddy.com. Like in Danica Patrick:


   Guess with Mark Martin, the company is looking for a slightly different demographic….
    "When you're registering a domain every second every day, you must be reaching a broad spectrum of people," Martin says.
    "It is nice they didn't pass on the opportunity to sponsor the car because I'm going to be 51. That's pretty cool."
    Age is sometimes a funny thing in racing. Once, NASCAR racers retired when they reached their mid-30s, back when death was a constant issue. Then NASCAR racing was at a point where drivers weren't considered really in their prime until in their mid-30s. Then the youth craze hit, when Jeff Gordon, at 24, proved he could handle things here. Then things got even younger, with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano…
   So what to make of Mark Martin?
   Well, flash back: "It was a big deal for a 22-year-old to be getting a pole in 1981," Martin said, referring to his early years. "Now it's not such a big deal at all.
    "Times are changing.
    "We're talking about almost 30 years ago (when Martin first broke in)….and things have changed a lot.
    "The fact that a big deal has been made out of my age now really doesn't surprise me, because I would expect that, no matter who was getting it done if they were getting it done right now.
    "The times have changed. It has tended more toward younger drivers (now), where before engineers and technology had infiltrated NASCAR the driver was the 'data acquisition,' and he was very important… and he could not do that when he was 22. He had to have many years under his belt.
    "But there's no reason why more guys my age can't be doing what I'm doing…other than it takes a lot of elements to line up. You have to really be willing to give the health and fitness side of it more.
    "I still make suggestions (to crew chief Alan Gustafson); I still feel things and say 'Yeah, I felt that. It's 'this.'
    "But 15 years ago I probably would have said 'Put this spring in for New Hampshire.'
    "Now I don't find out until I get to the trailer what's in the car for here.
    "And if I don't happen to find out, that's not a big issue either. I'll drive the car and feel the car and tell what it's doing.
    "…But nothing like the kind of stuff that Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace and I, and a number of other guys, did for years -- which was really to make most of the calls on what was under the car."
    The transition – from those days to today – began about eight or nine years ago, Martin says. And he says that wasn't an easy period "when we quit running normal front springs and started running the real soft front springs.
    "It required a different aero package, and to learn all that stuff was slow and difficult, and we weren't at the cutting edge of it.
    "We finally got there, but it took quite a while, and it was discouraging."
    And then NASCAR switched to the car-of-tomorrow two years ago. 
    "The COT scared me," Martin said. "But after about a half-season of messing around, and the opportunity of working with (crew chief) Ryan Pemberton, we started to get on some things, and it really came along.
    "You have to be able to adapt to the changing environment…and over 30 years I've seen a lot of that."
    And the title this time? Jimmie Johnson, his teammate, is the man to watch, Martin says: "I've watched them step it up when the chase started before. They're the ones to be the most concerned about, based on their history.
    "Sure, they've not been quite as ferocious on the race track the last few races maybe. But all they have to do is just hit it."
    The average finish needed to win this title, Martin predicts, could be between 5.5 and 5.0: "Anybody that does that for 10 races is going to hold that trophy.
    "But I'll be surprised if anyone can do that this year, the way it looks like the contenders are."
    And Martin isn't going to stake much on Sunday's 300 as very telling: "It'll take five races. You're not going to know anything after this race, I'm telling you.
    "You could have a terrible finish here and then rebound."
   In fact Johnson himself did just that in 2006, opening the chase here with a 39th place finish, falling 165 points down after the first three events, but rallying to win the title, by 56 points over teammate Matt Kenseth.
     "When it's four-to-go (that would be heading into Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead), the picture is going to get much clearer," Martin says.
    "I wouldn't get too carried away about how everything lands in this race."


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