Martin more driven than ever

Auto Racing

Daytona 500

Sunday - 1 p.m. - Ch. 45

February 16, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Mark Martin was sitting on a high stool the other day, talking about how he races and how he wants to race.

"I don't want to tighten up," he said. "For things to be fun, you can't be tense. I always race like this" - and with that he inched forward on the stool, positioning himself as if he were hunched over a steering wheel, his fists clenched.

"If you want to have fun," he said, "you have to race like this" - and then Martin sat back and loosened his grip. "I do have a personal flaw that makes me so crazy. I'd hope there would be some benefit from that."

Martin has always been one of the most intense drivers in the garage and on the track.

His glass is always half-empty.

Every victory may be his last.

Every race may have an unhappy ending.

This week, as he prepares for what is intended to be his last Daytona 500 in what is supposed to be his last Nextel Cup season, people are wishing him well.

Car owner Robert Yates said if his drivers - pole-winner Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler - can't win the 500 and the Cup, he secretly hopes Martin does.

Martin's car owner, Jack Roush, who has fielded the cars for the past two Cup champions, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, would like nothing better than to see his longest-serving driver end a career of frustration.

Martin is in his 18th year competing for Roush and will run his 21st Daytona 500 on Sunday, still searching for his first 500 victory and his first Cup title. He has finished Cup runner-up four times - so many times, Richard Petty said, "everyone considers Mark a champion, anyway."

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, certainly feels that way about Martin.

"He vouched for me and pushed me in the door here before anyone else wanted me," Kenseth said. "He helped teach me to drive my race car, showing me how to get the car set up right, and I've based my driving style all on him.

"I'll be rooting for him."

And so, too, will Roush, who said he will make sure Martin and his team get every scrap of information from every test session by every one of his teammates.

"What I'm going to do is make sure he and his team don't miss anything or get left in the dark," Roush said. "I don't know how the season will turn out, but I will predict that Mark Martin will not go quietly, and that speaks volumes."

All of the good wishes and offers of help are being made with generosity. There are no underlying motives. Martin's teammates and competitors simply wish him well.

But Martin is Martin. He hears their wishes and immediately shoulders them as if taking on a burden.

"If people really mean the things they've been saying," he said, "then it puts a lot of pressure on me. I'm worried about letting them down. The more they pull for me, the more afraid I feel that I won't be able to do the things they're wishing for.

"I'm for giving 100 percent and getting the results you get. But I never want to disappoint anyone. If these people really feel that, I hate, hate to disappoint them."

Martin, 46, still sees himself as a fortunate kid from Arkansas who has been able to "come race the big time." He has longed for championships, but when he's missed, brushed them off, saying a championship is not going to make or break his career.

"But championships are important, and this, I think, will be the most challenging year of my life," he said. "And I've made the commitment to go at it with all the ferocity I have, and I'm looking forward to it."

It was just a year ago that Martin thought he would leave the sport as an also-ran. His 2003 campaign, in which he finished 17th in points, was, by his description, the worst of his career.

There are drivers - Richard Petty was one - who could enjoy a race even when he knew he couldn't win. For men like Petty, the thrill is in the racing, whether it be at the front of the pack, in the middle or out of the running.

But Martin has never been like that. If he doesn't have a chance to win, he doesn't see the point. In 2003, he was miserable.

"We were terrible, and I thought that was how we were going to stay," he said. "I wasn't looking forward to the next two years."

And when last season started, he wasn't much happier as he finished last in the Daytona 500, which meant he started the season 43rd in points. But over the next 25 races, his crew worked harder and he drove harder than he figures he ever had.

By the time the 26th race of the season was over, he was eighth in points and firmly in The Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, in which 10 drivers competed for the title over the final 10 races.

Martin finished the season with one win and a fourth-place finish in the standings.

You would have thought he'd won the title.

"I was a competitor again," he said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of my team and of last season."

But, as the song says, that was yesterday, and yesterday's gone.

Today, as Martin continues to prepare for tomorrow's Daytona 500 qualifying races and the rest of the season, he has new worries.

He'll be thinking every day about what people want for him and how competitive he can be. But, he said, he won't think about the points and drive himself crazy.

"I can't do anything about the points," he said. "But I can do something about the car going fast, and that's what I'm going to think about."

Daytona 500

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener and premier event

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

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