Martin hitting stretch of tracks where he has excelled
If you were Jack Roush, you wouldn't let Mark Martin go either.
At 47, and working on his second attempt to retire, Martin is where he always has been in Nextel Cup racing -- at the top. The Roush Racing driver is fourth in the points standings and has been a contender for a top-10 finish in almost every race this season.
"Mark Martin means so much to this sport," young teammate Carl Edwards said earlier this season. "I can only hope that when I'm at that stage in my career I've had the kind of career he has."
Last season was supposed to be Martin's last in an illustrious career. He announced his retirement and began a farewell tour, complete with fan appreciation events and retro paint schemes. But sponsorship commitments at Roush prompted the team owner to urge his longtime driver to stick with him for one more go-around.
Certainly the fact that Martin had finished in the top five in the standings in three of the last four seasons couldn't have hurt.
With fast cars, a swift pit crew and one of the most experienced and respected drivers behind the wheel, the No. 6 team is once again a contender to win a championship -- the title that has eluded Martin in a 24-year full-time Cup career. In his 25th season, Martin couldn't even put into words what winning a title would mean. In typical deflective fashion, he said he's just enjoying the ride.
"I feel real good," he said. "These guys have done a great job on our AAA Fusion and I've been able to drive really fast cars and things have gone well."
Martin is well positioned to advance once again into NASCAR's playoff-style 10-race shootout for the championship. In the series' first two seasons with the Chase, 10 drivers have qualified and Martin has finished fourth each time.
Although that's where he ranks right now -- dropping from second after his only misstep of the season, a 35th-place finish after getting caught up in a wreck at Talladega -- Martin appears poised to move up.
Historically, this portion of the Cup schedule has been kind to the veteran -- including this weekend's host track, Darlington Raceway. Martin has notched top-10s in four of his last five tries at the track -- including three straight top-seven finishes.
"It's a jagged oval," he said of the track, which causes problems for many racers. "It's not a smooth-radius turn. The wall goes in and out and in and out. Your line is as smooth as anywhere else, but the track's all over the place. You go from touching the apron to touching the wall and you've never even changed directions. It's really narrow and banked a lot. The cars go really fast and the track goes everywhere, so it's always a challenge."
The challenge plays right into Martin's hands. His patience and experience allow him to excel when it's hardest for most to do so.
One of his most highly respected qualities is that patience, and the sixth sense to know when to make a move and when not to make one. That helps him avoid wrecking himself or others. In recent years, as young drivers increasingly have borne a mark for driving overly aggressively and lacking respect on the racetrack, Martin's name consistently emerges when a model to follow is being discussed.
"Honestly, respect is the greatest compliment that you could ever give anyone, so that kind of respect means everything to me," he said.
It wasn't earned at the expense of results, either. This stretch of tracks is as good an example of Martin's prowess as any other. His successes at Darlington are matched by high finishes at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he won the all-star race last season; Pocono Raceway; and Dover Downs. It just so happens that those are the next handful of stops on the calendar.
"We couldn't ask for a better string of racetracks moving forward," he said. "I'm excited about going there with this race team and seeing what we can do."
The feeling is mutual.
"We really like the car that we are taking to Darlington this weekend, and we know it's the type of track where Mark's talents can really stand out," crew chief Pat Tryson said. "We had a really good run there a year ago and we were really good there two years ago, as well, so it's been a place where we've had success lately. It will just be up to us to put all the pieces in place and go out there and hopefully compete for the win."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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