The Yoda of NASCAR? Mark Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If you want to know the intricacies of the computer and Internet world, ask Bill Gates. If you desire more knowledge of the cosmos, ask scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
And if you want the real scoop in the NASCAR world, ask Mark Martin.
In other words, go to the resident expert of the field. At age 52, Martin is entering a fourth decade behind the wheel of a Cup car. It started in 1981 and will continue in 2011, his last season in the No. 5 Chevrolet. But it won't be his last in Sprint Cup, he tells us.
No active participant in the sport today has seen more by bridging the changing landscape of NASCAR than Martin. So the best way to escape the usual "We're excited to start the season" comments from Daytona media day is to take a little time with the master.
The Martin book of knowledge offered these tidbits Thursday:
• Jimmie Johnson can win even when he's slow.
• Danica Patrick is better than people think, but there is one thing she must learn.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. is inwardly strong, a trait he needs now.
• Most drivers don't know how good they have it in terms of safety.
• The secret to his success is adaptability.
Pick a topic. Martin knows it, and it shows.
For example, want to know the most amazing thing about Johnson winning a fifth consecutive championship last season? He wasn't fast, Martin says.
"It was impressive because they didn't have the speed they enjoyed in years past," Martin said. "But it didn't teach me anything that I hadn't already learned about Jimmie."
Martin admits he was a doubter, but he learned just how good Johnson really is.
"I was one of the guilty parties before I got to Hendrick Motorsports," Martin said. "I was looking at it from the surface.
"I've had success and I've not had success, but I was the same driver. The car means everything to me. So in Jimmie's case, I just figured he was driving a good car. Once I got inside the walls at Hendrick, I found out different."
Martin saw the light by watching Jimmie day after day at Hendrick.
"I know now why he's done it," Martin said. "I hadn't been [at Hendrick] long when I began to see it. As I took a closer look, I realized he is the biggest part of why that car is good. His contribution to the team is huge."
So why don't people give him the respect he deserves?
"It still hasn't soaked in on us, and I don't think that will fully soak in for quite some time," Martin said. "It probably will be when his driving career is behind him before the rest of us get the full meaning of what he's accomplished."
Martin also believes that Earnhardt and Patrick receive far too much criticism.
"Give her a break," Martin said of Danica. "She's really up against a lot. But she has a lot of talent, and she's incredibly committed.
"She's definitely making progress. She's having to build that knowledge under a microscope in short bursts instead of doing it every day. The thing we have to remember is she has absolutely no background in what it takes to really make these cars fast."
And what is that, exactly?
The seats we drove in were ridiculous. The seat I used in 1981 when I first came to NASCAR was outrageous. I guess we were just still in the Stone Age.” -- Mark Martin
"These cars have to be driven way out on the edge," Martin said. "You have to slide these cars. You don't slide Indy cars. You slide 'em right before you hit the wall. So it's going to take time for her to learn where you can slide these cars and where you can't.
"You can slide these cars a lot at some places and not much other places. If you're at one of the places where you can't and you do, then it's not so good. But one thing you need to take notice is she has not knotted up any cars."
Martin also gave an insightful look at Earnhardt, who constantly will be asked this week about the 10-year anniversary of his father's death.
"I think he can handle it, but it will be an additional stress and strain on him," Martin said. "I've said this before, but [Earnhardt] has the strongest set of shoulders in motorsports.
"He gracefully carries the incredible weight of his circumstances. He's a strong individual. I wouldn't want to be him, but he handles it well."
Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 sparked a new era of racing safety.
"The HANS [head-and-neck support] device was a light-years move forward," Martin said. "And the SAFER barrier would be No. 2.
"I don't see how you make big leaps and gains now like those, but an awful lot of the guys out there don't know any better. Well, that's not fair. They don't know any different."
Martin has suffered with a bad back for years, a result of racing when a crash was a much more dangerous mistake than it is today.
"Guys like Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon, we've been there and we lived it," Martin said. "We had a tire war without SAFER barriers and HANS. It was brutal, and as long as I live, I will feel the effects from those days.
"It was something we didn't put enough thought into. The seats we drove in were ridiculous. The seat I used in 1981 when I first came to NASCAR was outrageous. I guess we were just still in the Stone Age."
Martin might be a caveman to some, but he sees a trend these days (fewer cautions), and that gives him an advantage.
"The very best drivers adapt to what the demand is, but it's coming back to me now," he said. "The multiple cautions with short runs are not my strong suit. My strong suit is long green-flag runs, managing the tires and equipment and making stuff last. Green-flag racing is real racing to me."
You can learn a lot listening to Martin talk, but, as a five-time runner-up to the championship, he realizes that some questions don't have an answer, like how to win the title.
"It takes magic," Martin said. "It's intangible. You can't reach out and touch it. We had it going on in 2009 and 1998 [two of his runner-up years]. I'm working hard to create it in 2011."
Terry Blount is a senior writer 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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