- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Mark Martin just wants to have fun.
Anyone who knows Martin hopes he's able to do just that one of these days. Driven to be the best, the 46-year-old Martin rarely can savor a victory for long. More often than not, he'll spend his winner's interview talking about how glad he is to have won since he always figures his last win was going to be his last.
One of these days, naturally, he'll be right. The final Nextel Cup Series race he wins this year -- he retires in November -- indeed will be his last. If it turns out he's already right, his win at Dover last spring will have been the final one of a stellar Cup career.
However, it likely won't be his last win in one of NASCAR's top three series. Martin is contemplating running the Craftsman Truck Series schedule with Roush Racing in 2006 since he's not yet ready to quit racing altogether.
His hope is that the truck series -- with its 25-race schedule, compared to 38 Cup events -- will lead to some fun.
"It's very important for me to figure out how to have fun because I've never put any premium whatsoever on that," Martin said. "It's never been important and it's not important in 2005, but it is important to me looking toward 2006 -- to make a change in my life, close this chapter and open the next chapter. Therefore, I have to find some things that I love, that I have passion for and that I'll have fun with.
"I will have some of that with racing, but that's one of the reasons why I'm telling you I'm not gonna stop driving. If I couldn't work anything out in NASCAR racing, I'd drive some of my son's race trucks, his Late Models. I'd go around across the country and do guest appearances at short tracks, signing autographs and driving race cars. I'm not gonna quit racing. I can't. I can't because I might short-circuit. There's no doubt that that void has to be filled in my life and that I have to transition."
Such words might sound scary coming from some drivers, but it's just business as usual for the ever-intense Martin. Being the best is something he's always striving for, though he's always afraid others will think he hasn't accomplished all that much.
A miserable, by his standards, 2003 season left Martin worried that people were going to conclude that his career hadn't been anything special. But working with crew chief Pat Tryson, Martin won once and made the Chase For The Nextel Cup last season.
That's left him feeling a bit more confident heading into this year, but Martin isn't exactly relaxed just yet.
"My biggest fear in motorsports would be to go out on decline," said Martin, before invoking a familiar refrain. "I've fooled a lot of people for a long, long time and it's very important for me to step out of this thing with everybody fooled and disillusioned about what I was able to do."
If Martin truly believes that, he's kidding himself, but he'll use whatever it takes to fuel a fire stoked by legendary workouts to keep in peak form. If a fight were to break out in the garage one day, drivers would want the scrappy Arkansas native on their side.
Those workouts will continue this year and he'll need them to keep up with an increasingly grueling schedule. Besides running seven Busch Series races and the International Race of Champions series, he'll be focused on his "Salute to You" tour, interacting with his fans as much as possible.
And then there are the business interests, as he oversees a trucking company founded by his father and a car dealership in Arkansas. In between will be the numerous tests and sponsor appearances, meaning free time will be more precious than ever. Racing, though, will never be far from his mind.
"Nothing is gonna step in front of the commitment that we have to not only excel on the racetrack, but to try and do what I said I would do and that's give the media the respect and something different than they've ever gotten from me -- try to give the fans a thank you for the respect and the things that they've helped me do with my career as well," Martin said.
"So it's a huge commitment. This is gonna be the most difficult year of my life and there's no way it's gonna be fun because it's not designed to be fun. If it was designed to be fun, we'd have a little bit of fun time scheduled in there, but all we've got is work in front of us."
While Martin has an ownership interest in Matt Kenseth's team, he has no desire to own a NASCAR team. Maybe that will change, but right now he doesn't believe it will.
"At this time, Jack [Roush] can give me a team and I'd say, 'Take that back. I don't want that,' " Martin said. "That's how strongly I feel about that at this point, so I am gonna have to find some things for me to have passion for and fire for, and one of those things that will help fill that void could be the Truck Series. If not, I can always find stuff to drive."
It's still hard to imagine Martin being more jovial than focused, but maybe the tiger can change its stripes. Perhaps a less-demanding schedule will do the trick.
He says part of the reason he hasn't had more fun is that he's had to work harder each year to remain competitive.
"I won't miss being at the racetrack on every Sunday for 38 or 39 weekends out of the year. That is a grind," Martin said. "It's not when you're a kid because every place you go is an adventure, but after 15 years it starts to wear old and after 20 -- there are a lot of things I've given up in my life to do what I do and to have been able to fool all of you guys for all of these years, it took sacrifices and compromises. I won't miss making as many. I'll have to make some.
"But the number of those today in this environment has just gone completely beyond what I'm willing to continue to give. I was happy to give it. I'm happy to give it in 2005, but I couldn't sign up for another.
"I want [people] to understand one other thing, too. Every year for me to be competitive in this thing, I've had to reach deeper and, believe me, in 2005 I'm having to reach as deep right to the bottom of the bag -- everything that I can find and everything that I can scrape up in order to be competitive because all the guys I race with are doing the same thing. So it's required a larger commitment from me every year and at some point you stand around and you look and you say, 'I can't do anything but go down next year because I can't find anymore. I can't put anymore in this thing.' And the level is still going up."
If Martin can deal with the demands this year, no one in the sport will begrudge the veteran whatever good times eventually come his way.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.