DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Success comes in its own good time in stock car racing, and the amount of work that goes into the effort often seems to have little to do with the outcome.
In Mark Martin's mind, he raced better time after time earlier this season without a victory. Now, on a three-race winning streak, there is an edge that wasn't there before.
And Martin, instead of being unabashedly pleased with his success, is uncharacteristically reserved about being the hottest driver on the Winston Cup circuit.
"You have to understand," he said, as the sun began to rise over the fourth turn at Darlington International Raceway and the pit crew rolled his Ford Thunderbird through inspection. "There is absolutely nothing different about this team today from what it was a month ago. It's just our time.
"My philosophy is that some days you can't win no matter how good you are. Other weeks, you're able to overcome."
In many respects, the philosophy is a commentary on the toll waiting for success has taken on Martin.
To know Martin has meant knowing a man with an easy smile and a positive attitude. He could be counted on to count his blessings and to see the glass as half full.
Now, in the midst of one of the best performances his team has had over the past three seasons, the 34-year-old Arkansas native and his team appear afraid to enjoy it.
"Mark and I have been around a long time," said Martin's crew chief, Steve Hmiel. "Neither of us has gotten wild over this. We both know it's going to change, that we're not going to keep on winning like this. I think we know that you'd kill yourself if you allowed your emotions to swing widely -- depression over losing, out of your mind happy when you win. You have to carry yourself right up the middle."
Martin and Hmiel have combined to win three straight races: on the road course at Watkins Glen, on the two-mile superspeedway at Michigan, on the short track at Bristol.
Now their team faces the possibility of winning No. 4 today in the Mountain Dew Southern 500.
If they do, it will be a victory on the 1.3-mile intermediate length track known for its treachery as The Lady in Black. A win also will tie the Winston Cup record for consecutive victories in the
modern era, which dates to 1972.
While winning four in a row has not been done often in Winston Cup history -- only Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Harry Gant (1991) and Bill Elliott (1992) have done it -- Martin would be the third driver to pull it off in three years.
Tim Brewer, who was the crew chief on Elliott's car last year and on Waltrip's in 1981, doesn't hold out much hope for Martin's winning today.
"Mark's odds of winning here are pretty good, because winning gets easier when you have the momentum and the attitude going in the right direction," said Brewer. "But you have to play that against his odds of winning four in a row, and those odds aren't good at all."
Martin says, "Strings are made to be broken, and ours is stretched pretty tight."
"My advice to them is to enjoy what's happening right now," Brewer said, "because, believe me, it happens only rarely."
But Martin, 34, seems unable to do that. In 1990, he finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt in the championship race and thought his team was about to take off.
Martin simply bubbled.
In 1982, he had finished runner-up in the Rookie of the Year race to Geoff Bodine but found he couldn't make it on the circuit the next year. He went back to the American Speed Association circuit in the Midwest to rebuild his self-confidence.
In 1986, he got a second chance, and 1990 seemed to solidify the team's future. But 1991 resulted in a disappointing sixth in the year-end standings.
Last season, another bad performance in the first half of the season meant another sixth-place finish.
This season, Martin says he should have won seven more races, but bad luck or fate interfered. A flat tire, an empty fuel tank and a wreck he didn't cause were among his reasons for losing. It has all worked to make him more introverted.
Mark Martin no longer bubbles.
"I'm not looking for trouble," said car owner Jack Roush. "I'm not reading anything into anything. Mark has as much focus as he has ever had -- but we've been frustrated over six years in not being closer to a championship. . . . We've been sure we've had the right program, but with the difficulties we've experienced and been unable to prevent, it hasn't worked that way."
Martin says there is no inspiration in the chance to tie the record. He may be walking "a little prouder, with more confidence," as Brewer said he has observed, but that is all there is to notice.
"What I want is to win the race, not tie a record," Martin said. "I want to win this race as bad as I wanted to win at Watkins Glen before we had a streak. I race to win. You can't possibly entice me or Jack or Steve to want it more or to try harder by offering us money or recognition. When you get to 100 percent, there is no more."