- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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This time, Mark Martin means it. This will be his final Nextel Cup season. He's not saying he'll never run a Cup race once this year's done, but he won't race in the series on a full-time basis.
Martin, though, isn't about to stop racing. He wouldn't think of that -- and wasn't thinking that way back in October 2004, when he announced that last year would be his final Cup go-round.
Things changed, of course, last season. First, it was announced Jamie McMurray would take over Martin's No. 6 Roush Racing Ford, but not until 2007. Then, the team announced Kurt Busch was looking to leave the team. As it wound up, McMurray was released from the final year of his contract at Chip Ganassi Racing -- but with Busch receiving his release as well, McMurray ended up with Busch's team.
With the team without another driver owner Jack Roush felt was ready for Cup, Martin was asked to stick around one more year before making a full-time move to the Craftsman Truck Series. Mix in some Busch Series races, and the four-race International Race Of Champions Series, and Martin will have quite the busy season.
So much for slowing down. He even earned the pole for Friday's GM Flex Fuel 250 truck race. Martin, though, is trying not to think about the year ahead.
"I haven't thought about it, and I don't know if I am going to think about it," he said. "I'm still unprepared to talk about [it]; I don't really have a philosophy. ... I can't mentally prepare to drive. What I do, my preparation usually goes into the hardware. I try to help the team make a better car. When we came down here and tested, it was what it was. It was way short of impressive, and it is what it is."
Martin said that once a team gets to Daytona, there's little that can be done to improve the car. Maybe a solid fifth-place run in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race will have him looking forward to the Daytona 500, but his luck in the sport's biggest race -- and in restrictor-plate races in general -- rarely leaves him optimistic about his chances.
Martin still lives just miles from the Daytona track, although he's preparing to spend more time back in his native Arkansas once his driving days wind down.
So, although he refuses to get too excited about his chances, he doesn't deny he'd love to win the Daytona 500.
"Everybody wants to do well here because it actually pays more money than a lot of races," Martin said. "And, if you can win it, it is certainly more prestigious than any other race -- shortly rivaled by maybe the Brickyard. But if you had it and on the last lap you were leading and you thought you had it and the tire went flat like it did on [Dale] Earnhardt that year, then you did everything you could do.
"You can't will it. You can be strong-willed and you can will your way into a lot of things, but you can't will your way into a win at Daytona. It's either going to happen or it's not. You might dominate this race and have it slip through your fingers going into [Turn] 3 like it did, for example, with Dale one year. Or you might run terrible and win it. You might just be in the front at the end for some odd reason. Everybody goes out and gives it everything they have."
Martin never has been accused of doing anything less at any point in his career. Although he claims to be less than enthused about being back at it for another year, his teammates are at the other end of the spectrum.
"It's going to be awesome," Carl Edwards said. "I mean, Mark is the ultimate competitor. … He's going to be tough to beat. So I'm pretty excited to have him as a teammate for another year."
Greg Biffle said Martin brings a lot to the table in general, helping with setups and things of that nature.
Martin, though, makes no promises when it comes to Daytona. Although he'll run in the truck race here next year, he doesn't expect to long to run in the Daytona 500.
"I haven't had a great time at Daytona, so I don't expect to be missing the Daytona 500," he said. "I will miss racing at Charlotte. If I thought I would never race again at Las Vegas, Charlotte, Texas and Michigan and California ... if I thought I'd never race at those places again, I'd be teary-eyed, but I'm going to continue to race for many, many years. I'm not retiring."
Just scaling back. And for that, he's excited.
"I'm incredibly excited about getting this off my plate and opening a new chapter of my life," he said of Cup racing. "I really desperately have things that I want to do that I haven't been able to do because of my commitments to motorsports, and I want to get on with them."
For now, though, he's just facing the daunting season ahead by not thinking about it.
"It's the most busy I've ever been in my lifetime," he said. "I haven't had a chance to think about it a whole lot. Last year, I was preparing myself for my last year in Cup and there was a lot of emotion and a lot of things going on that I was focused on. This year, I'm just trying to keep afloat. I'm treading water."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com .
Mark Martin says he'll cut his Cup schedule in '07, but he isn't retiring. Still, this might be his last shot at a 500 victory.