Martin's power of being grateful

Mark Martin is a dynamo running on gratitude. He can overwhelm you with it. Make you tired of hearing it if you're not careful -- if you don't understand that gratitude is his life force.

After any race, no matter where he has finished, he no sooner catches his breath than he says into somebody's microphone, "I'm grateful …"

When Rick Hendrick signed him for this season, I couldn't quite understand why.

That's because I didn't understand gratitude as energy. Had no idea Martin would light up the whole Hendrick Motorsports compound all by himself.

The guy was turning 50, which didn't seem so much a physical drawback -- he's the all-time leader in fitness fanaticism among NASCAR drivers -- as an age for cemented habits, such as steadfast courtesy to others on the track.

Usually when an owner signs a settled driver like that, the boss is hedging his bets for a championship, hiring the steady runner in case the younger hot dogs falter.

But Murphy's Law has governed Martin's 21-year quest for a championship, leaving him runner-up four times and finishing in the hunt four more times with no Cup to show for it all.

So had Rick Hendrick gone into the business of handing out last chances to nice guys? Was that it?

Martin's gift season started as a roller coaster -- two engine failures, and then, in the eighth race, at Phoenix, his first win since 2005. And then Talladega slapped Martin down again in another wreck.

By the time he got to Darlington in May, Martin had resigned himself again. He said he'd stopped thinking about points altogether and was just driving for the love of all-out driving. He went out and won that race but then reiterated that it was all for the thrill now.

However, that made two wins, and by June, Hendrick had convinced him it would be a shame to waste those potential seeding points by not making the Chase. So at Michigan, Martin was points racing again, saving just enough fuel to finish, when Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle dueled and ran each other out of gas, and left Martin coasting into Victory Lane.

That made three. A win at Chicagoland made four, most on the tour so far.

And if the Chase began today, Martin would be the top seed.

Even after Johnson won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday by holding off a ferocious charge from Martin and Martin dubbed Johnson "Superman," that made only three wins for the HMS team star.

So the old man has emerged as the team leader. Hendrick's move has been anything but a handout, and he already has reaped a tidy return on his investment.

Johnson, asked whether he had a reciprocal nickname for Martin, said, "I don't know what to call him. 'Bionic Man' or something …

"The way he is, what he asks of his team, the way he interacts, his dedication -- it's contagious, brings out the best in all of us on the race team. I could see [Jeff] Gordon, myself, [Dale Earnhardt] Jr., all of us looking at ourselves in the mirror, doing a better job, pushing ourselves harder.

"Look at Mark. The guy is nonstop."

"Race in, race out, he's energized all of us," Hendrick said.

Martin is a predawn riser, a workout machine, a fast walker through the shops and garages, an obsessive weight watcher even with his diminutive frame. He could do commercials for Energizer. All they'd have to do is follow him with a camera.

He got Hendrick himself back on the kind of fitness program Hendrick hadn't tried since his bout with leukemia a decade ago. Martin was the example Hendrick used to get Earnhardt into running shoes and the gym this spring.

Bionic Man.

Whence cometh his energy?

"He's appreciative of the opportunity," Hendrick said.

And there it is. Gratitude. The driving force, old-fashioned as it might be.

From any postrace interview, but from the latest one for instance: "I'm actually just grateful that I had a chance to race for the win" … "I'm grateful to have had a chance at it" … "I'm grateful for it."

Martin's gratitude flows from deep and distant in his past. He arrived in NASCAR in 1981 under the assumption he would set this world on fire, hard-drinking, temperamental, self-assured.

That of course didn't last long. After his first full season, 1982, he slid and then plummeted off the Cup tour. Not until 1988 did Jack Roush lift him out of limbo, and after those two forceful personalities found harmony in 1990, they contended with Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

Martin has lived on gratitude ever since.

And that's what Hendrick has harnessed.

I'm weary of the word "visionary," from its overuse in racing. Besides, Hendrick deserves better than that.

He is a seer. He saw the dynamics of gratitude in Martin as surely as he saw the uncanny ability to drive a loose race car in a kid named Jeff Gordon in a mediocre car with a shoestring team in 1991.

Now I see what Hendrick wanted with Martin and why he wants him back next year.

After Indy, Hendrick's voice broke as he said, "Mark was a gentleman. He came to Victory Lane."

What choked up the top team owner in NASCAR?

Gratitude, I suspect.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.