- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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A lot has changed in a year for Mark Martin. A year ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Martin announced that 2005 would be his "Salute to You" tour as he wound down his Nextel Cup career.
Martin made it clear he wasn't announcing his retirement, that he'd be racing somewhere in 2006. His focus was on the Craftsman Truck Series from the outset, and he was planning on running the entire schedule there next year.
Now, of course, Martin will be back in his familiar No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing. When Jack Roush signed Jamie McMurray to a contract for 2007, Martin agreed to stay in the seat one more year until McMurray became available.
Things have changed even more since then, though, with Kurt Busch's announcement that he's signed with Penske Racing South for '07. Last week, Roush said that McMurray eventually will take over the No. 97 car now driven by Busch. Todd Kluever, a rookie in the Truck Series, will run the Busch Series schedule next year and replace Martin in '07.
Through it all, the one certainty is that Martin's focus remains squarely on this year.
"I'm very much at peace with [racing next year] because it doesn't exist in my world at this time," Martin says with a laugh. "I know it's there. I know I'm gonna do it. It doesn't exist in my world, and that is part of what I said about being at peace with the things I can't control. My way of dealing with it, my psychology on myself, is it just doesn't exist."
Martin's main reason for moving to the Truck Series was for the shorter, 25-race schedule that would free up 11 weekends a year to spend with wife Arlene and son Matt.
So even though things have changed, Martin says his family is OK with his decision.
"They were involved in the decision and in the talks from the very beginning," Martin says. "I said in 2006 that I would put my family first, and I feel like if they were involved in the decision and they made the decision that was the way to go, that that's putting them first even though they would still take a backseat timewise. I still feel like I put them first, so that's how I view that psychology on myself."
Martin says his fans are happy with his decision, and it won't be too big a surprise if he gives them plenty to smile about this weekend. He makes no secret of the fact that Lowe's Motor Speedway is his favorite track on the Nextel Cup circuit, and winning the Nextel All-Star Challenge in May certainly didn't alter his opinion any.
So coming off a win at Kansas last week, Martin brings plenty of momentum into Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500. He's still not putting much stock in his championship hopes after an early wreck at Talladega, Ala., two weeks ago, but a fifth career points-paying win at the 1.5-mile facility in North Carolina certainly wouldn't hurt matters any.
"I tell you what, I love Lowe's Motor Speedway. In my opinion, it's the greatest place to race in the world," Martin says. "I can remember the first time that I ever went there in 1981 and thinking 'Wow, this is just like a small quarter-mile track somewhere, except it's huge, but you could race just like that.' Every time I go there, the first thing I do after the first lap is radio the team and tell them how awesome that track is. We had a great test there a couple of weeks ago and I can't tell you how excited I am about getting back there.
"Last Sunday was a great win for this team, and Charlotte couldn't come at a better time. We had a good car there in the spring and we got caught up in somebody's wreck late in the race. Hopefully this time we'll be able to avoid that and finish it off. Tony [Stewart] has a pretty good lead on all of us, but it's really tight after that. We just have to keep fighting and see what happens."
Crew chief Pat Tryson doesn't worry about the driver this weekend, just about whether Martin's car is to the driver's liking.
"It's just up to us to give him a car capable of putting him up front, and we all know that he'll do the rest," Tryson says. "Our goal is to give Mark a good car and go out and look for two in a row this weekend."
A runner-up four times in his bid for a Cup championship, Martin's not basing his career on winning one before he retires. And he said there's no less pressure this year even though he'll be back in the car with yet another chance at the title in 2006.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is my last chance at a championship," Martin says. "If you don't make the Chase, you can't win it. As of right now, I don't expect to make the Chase next year because I know how hard it is. Obviously, we will do everything we can, but, like I say, 2006 doesn't exist. It just doesn't, for me, but we'll deal with that when it comes to us.
"I'm not gonna work on that right now. I've got a lot of other things to worry about, whether or not I can be as fierce and as focused and all those things in 2006, I don't know if I can. I will deal with that later. All I know is I was able to give more than I ever thought was possible in 2005 because it was gonna be my last year and now I can't do that again. You can only do that once, so I'll have to come up with something else for next year, and I don't know what that will be at this time."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.