0

Martin eyes elusive Daytona win

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin was driving in the middle of a pack when things got a little dicey during his qualifying race Thursday.

Cars were ducking high and low, sliding left and right, banging, bumping and battling for every inch around Daytona International Speedway.

Martin backed off.

The 51-year-old driver -- the guy who has endured so many close calls, frustrating finishes, big wrecks and equipment failures at NASCAR's most famous track -- simply had too much to lose this time around.

Martin earned his first Daytona 500 pole last week, a strong sign this could be his best shot at getting what would be the most meaningful victory in his 29-year career. His No. 5 Chevrolet will lead the 43-car field to the green flag in today's race -- and would like to do the same when the checkered flag drops about four hours later.

"We've got as good a car as anybody," said Martin, who finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in last year's Sprint Cup standings. "Anybody can win this thing. It might as well be us."

Few would complain, not after everything Martin has been through at the 21/2-mile superspeedway. The storied track has given him more heartache and disappointment than reason for celebration. He once ran out of gas late, crashed some of his fastest cars and even came up a few inches short in 2007.

After returning to the sport on a part-time basis, he was leading with two laps remaining that year and looked like he would hold off Kyle Busch in a green-white-checkered finish. But Busch wrecked, and Kevin Harvick edged Martin at the line in one of the closest finishes in race history.

Martin could have been sour, and no one would have blamed him. But he got exactly what he wanted -- a chance at winning the sport's premier race.

Nonetheless, Martin is still winless in 49 Cup starts at Daytona. Sure, he has two victories in the now-defunct IROC series, another in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout and one more in the truck series, but none of those compare to the Great American Race.

He is winless in 25 starts in the 500. A win today would end his drought and make him the oldest to win the 500. Bobby Allison was 50 when he won in 1988.

"I love getting records," Martin said. "Can't get the youngest anymore."

Nope. But he could become the oldest series champion, too.

Martin, who's finished second five times in the points race, revived his career with NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 when he returned to a full-time schedule. Team owner Rick Hendrick paired him with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who grew up near Daytona idolizing Martin, and the two have developed a strong bond.

It nearly capped last year with a title. Martin finished 141 points behind Johnson, who claimed his fourth consecutive championship.

"I'm the luckiest guy around because it looks like I've done so many things right, but really I've just been lucky and stumbled around," Martin said. "I have just stumbled around, fell in this 5 car, and it's the best thing that has ever happened to me, you know.

"There's no place in the world that I'd rather be. I've said that before. There's no place in the world I'd rather be."

Hendrick insists Martin's arrival has benefited everyone on the four-car team. His workout regimen has prompted everyone to get in better shape. His communication skills concerning the car have become part of the model. And his seemingly eternal optimism has rubbed off on others.

"I said this, and I'll say it again, he's helped the whole organization," Hendrick said.

Now, the entire shop would love to help Martin get to Daytona's Victory Lane.

"The sentimental favorite is Mark," Johnson said. "He's a bad ass. He's tough."

He's also on the pole. Martin was the only driver to top 191 mph in qualifying last weekend and had looked fast in practice since.

He felt like he could have been a factor in his 150-mile qualifying race, but knowing a wreck would have cost him his starting spot, he backed off. He won't do the same today and could end up with his biggest trophy of all.

"I'm just lucky to have an outstanding resume with some holes in it," said Martin, who won five times last season and pushed his career total to 40. "I had the most fun of my life last year, and I'm gonna have a blast this year.

"Not many people my age can say this is the best it's ever been, and for me it is. So, you know, life's good."