Every race an All-Star race for Martin
Martin is doing something more naive, more refreshing and more effective than any of those guys can afford: racing solely for the fun of it.
No sooner had he won the Southern 500 at Darlington last Saturday night than he was saying of this Saturday night's All-Star race at Charlotte, "I can't wait to get there."
Of course, every driver loves the All-Star race because there are no points to be had, and therefore no pressure, just all-out racing for the joy of racing. It's a throwback to each driver's youth.
But this is what separates Martin, at age 50, from all the rest: Every race is an All-Star race to him now, just a Saturday night feature. No points, no pressure, no more longing or struggling for the Cup.
Busch, 24, has not been able to bask in his spectacular eight-win start to last season, because his effort fell apart in the Chase. Johnson, 33, cannot revel in three straight championships because of all the pressure to win a fourth straight.
Even Logano, 18, must fret over living up to billing -- rookie of the year honors and then championships are a must, without which he will be deemed a failure.
Points. Points. Points.
Martin's mind is clear of all such clutter.
There is nothing left but the exhilaration of driving a fast car as fast as he can. He lives in the moment on the track, in the split-second thrill of the car's getting forward bite up off the corner.
"I'm having a blast," he has said, oh, 20 or 30 times in the past week -- including the days before he won at Darlington, his second Cup victory in the past four races.
"I'm not chasing points," he reiterated to our Roundtable panel on ESPN's "NASCAR Now" on Monday evening. Running a partial schedule for the past two seasons, dismissing all thoughts of championships, has let him "assess my life and find out what I really love. And that's driving a fast race car."
That has carried over, now that he's back for a full season with a commitment to Hendrick Motorsports for another year.
He made his mindset clear last Friday before he'd even turned a wheel in practice on Darlington Raceway. Then Saturday night he went out and won one of the tougher races in memory on NASCAR's toughest oval, and he said again that he is now racing for the sheer love of racing.
If you know him, you can tell he means it. The sun has broken bright on his weathered face, and the black cloud that used to come and go on his brow has cleared away for keeps.
You could see it face-to-face Saturday night and via satellite uplink Monday. The face has somehow turned more boyish even than when he arrived as a prodigy in 1981 -- his brow was furrowed back then, with care about measuring up to billing in Cup, off the short tracks of Arkansas and the lower Midwest.
"A lot of cool things could happen yet this year, the way things are going," he said soon after sitting down at the winner's interview at Darlington.
There was a time when you didn't hear Mark Martin say such things, projecting bright possibilities just over the horizon. First and foremost, he used to leave open the possibility of future failure.
Even in the minutes after wins, the black cloud would rise again and cover the brief breakout of sunlight, and he would say he would enjoy this one because he might never get another one.
He was always trying to steel himself against disappointment. Yet the disappointments kept on coming: Four times he finished second in the standings, four times he finished third, and three more times he made the Chase but didn't win it.
That's 11 times in the hunt with no trophy to show for it.
You get enough scar tissue on your heart, it can't be broken anymore.
That's where Mark Martin is now. Nobody has earned the right to free up his spirit more than he has.
And he is freeing fans of this quagmire, this angst of always looking ahead to something that ought not matter so much, the almighty championship.
In a realm that has turned to fretting about who's going to make the Chase by April or May, there is nothing wrong with running as fast as you can, for the joy of the moment.
Maybe it's boyish, even childlike in today's environment -- "I'm going through my second childhood," Martin admitted Saturday night.
Actually, maybe it's his first one. Long before Logano was born, Martin brought enormous expectations on his back to NASCAR.
With his sounding happier Saturday night than I'd ever heard him, I had to ask, to make sure: "Are we hearing a Mark Martin who has a whole different feeling right now than you've had, ever, or in a long time?"
"I am a different person, Ed," he said. He quickly added, "I still think that I'm cautious about what I set myself up for."
So he just allows for the possibility that "cool things could happen," and he is certain only of this: "I know I'm gonna have some fun."
Thirty-six hours later, on the TV uplink, his only certainty remained the same: "One thing I'm sure of: I'm gonna have some more fun."
Again: "I can't wait to get to the All-Star race."
He referred, at that moment, to the one at Lowe's Motor Speedway Saturday night.
But it'll be the same there the following weekend, for another frolic called the Coca-Cola 600.
And then on to another blast at Dover, then Pocono, then Michigan and beyond.
And all the while, Mark Martin is teaching us the most youthful lesson of all: Live in the moment, live for today.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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