Commentary

Age no barrier for Mr. Martin

Updated: April 24, 2009, 11:02 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Try to find one Sprint Cup driver, crew chief or team owner who says Mark Martin can't win the championship at age 50.

I dare you. Won't happen.

Just try to get someone to list one reason he can't win it.

"No reason at all that I can see," said Jeff Burton, still pretty good at 41. "Mark has no disadvantage because of his age. Some people would disagree. But physically, he's probably in better shape than he was 10 years ago when he was having back problems."

Few topics have more universal agreement in the Cup garage. You would have a better chance to get one guy to say the new car is the greatest racing machine ever built. Or maybe one driver would say adding five more races to the schedule is a good idea.

But Martin being too old at 50 to get it done? No way, not in the eyes of his fellow competitors.

[+] EnlargeMark Martin
AP Photo/Wade PayneWith four runner-up finishes in the Cup Series on his résumé, Mark Martin knows the disappointment of falling short in a title run.

"Age is irrelevant with Mark," said Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief on the No. 5 Chevy. "If I've been asked once, I've been asked it a thousand times. I can tell you I don't even think about it. It doesn't even come into the equation when I talk with him and work with him and when I'm around him. It's irrelevant with Mark."

Obviously, Martin's crew chief isn't the most objective person to ask, not that it makes any difference in this case.

Even if someone in NASCAR doesn't think it's possible, no one would say it. Everyone has too much respect for Martin to question his championship abilities at the half-century mark.

Martin has earned that respect as the consummate good guy, racing every competitor cleanly and honorably throughout his 28-year career.

But let's take an objective look at the question: Can Martin win the title at 50?

In Martin's case, he's the most physically fit 50-year-old man you will ever find. I doubt a french fry has touched his lips in 20 years. And I know alcohol hasn't.

But as someone who has crossed the 50 barrier, I can tell you, Father Time takes his toll. I can't run as fast, can't hit a golf ball as far and can't throw a football as accurately. My reflexes aren't as sharp and I sure as heck can't see as well as I could at 30.

And I'm not alone, folks. The clock keeps ticking for all of us.

However, more athletes than ever are accomplishing amazing things later in life.

George Foreman won a heavyweight title at 45. Gordie Howe was the World Hockey Association MVP at 46. Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter at 44.

Just two weeks ago, Kenny Perry almost won the Masters at 48. Greg Norman willed his 53-year-old body to the lead on the final day of the British Open last year before falling short. Dara Torres won three Olympic silver medals in swimming this past summer at 41.

On average, the over-40 athletes today are in better condition than many under-40 athletes were 20 years ago. Better training, better nutrition, etc.

But 50? Can anyone beat the best of the best in any sport at age 50?

Martin is driving a race car. He doesn't have to run a 100-meter sprint in the Olympics. He doesn't have to quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. He doesn't have to make 3-pointers for the Celtics, and he doesn't have to hit Johan Santana's fastball.

The question is, can he drive a race car on the edge every week better than men who are 10 or more years younger? Or 26 years younger in Kyle Busch's case?

Mark has no disadvantage because of his age. Some people would disagree. But physically, he's probably in better shape than he was 10 years ago when he was having back problems.

-- Jeff Burton

Martin still must buck history to win the Cup crown at 50. It's never been done. In fact, no 50-plus driver has finished in the top three in the Cup standings.

Dale Earnhardt finished second in 2000 when he was 49. Harry Gant finished fourth in 1984 and '85 when he was 51 and 52.

Regardless which era you believe was more competitive, Earnhardt and Gant had to man up for the entire Cup schedule to win the title.

Martin doesn't. He needs to get on it for only 10 races, assuming he's 12th or better after the first 26 events.

Racing aggressively at the right times is what it takes to win the title. If there's a knock on Martin, it's the fact that he's too nice a guy and won't go all out at another driver's expense.

In some ways, he's the anti-Earnhardt. The Intimidator would've traded paint with his grandma to win a race. Martin doesn't do it that way, which might be one reason he's a four-time runner-up to the title.

Will he get more aggressive at 50? Can he? Does he need to?

Martin is 13th entering the Aaron's 499 Sunday. He'll be back in the top 12 after this one as long as he escapes the inevitable Talladega crash carnage.

And he could win his second consecutive race. Martin never has won a race at Daytona but has two Talladega victories in his career. And now he has probably the best car he's ever had here.

A victory would make Martin the first 50-year-old winner on the giant Alabama oval. Earnhardt's final Cup victory came at Talladega in 2000 when he was 49.

Dega is not one of Martin's favorite tracks.

"You just can't control your own destiny at Talladega," he said. "There's too much up in the air and too much left to chance. The key is to just go into it with no expectations. That's the best strategy. Just race."

No expectations. That's how Martin is approaching any championship talk, too. After winning at Phoenix this past weekend, he said he refuses to even consider it.

"There's a lot of competition out here," Martin said. "You just can't outrun these cats every day. It's expecting a lot. I'm telling you, every one of them can drive."

Martin wants to lie in the weeds and avoid the championship talk as long as possible. He knows the pressure builds as the season progresses. And he knows better than anyone the disappointment of falling short.

Martin is playing on house money and loving it. Anything he accomplishes from here on out is a bonus, especially at 50.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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