Joliet, Ill. - - The close-cropped stubble on his head contains more salt than pepper, and the wrinkles run across Mark Martin's face like long-ago dried-up riverbeds. And for a while there, twilight racing had a far less poetic meaning for him, semi-retirement leaving him with a loose grip on the track.
So it was with unmistakable giddiness that a man a half-century old took to the radio early in the LifeLock.com 400 on Saturday, his Chevrolet hastily and efficiently chopping through traffic and turning the Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile oval into a veritable senior circuit.
"This is easy, bud," Martin boasted over the airwaves.
Not by the end Saturday, it wasn't. But for three full seasons, Mark Martin had vanished from victory lanes everywhere. Now he is a 50-year-old who mostly dominated the LifeLock.com 400 for his fourth Sprint Cup victory of the year and reasserted, for now, his place in the Chase for the first championship of a nearly three-decade career.
Martin entered the weekend perched just on the outside of the top 12 in the points standings, thanks to a 38th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway last weekend that capped a lamentable streak of three straight finishes outside of the top 10 after a victory in Michigan on June 14.
And after dominating most of the race, Martin lost the lead to Jimmie Johnson off a double-file restart following a Sam Hornish Jr. crash on Lap 220. Then, just as dramatically, Martin recaptured the lead when a double-file restart pushed Johnson well back on Lap 252 and gave Martin the clean air to run to victory.
Thus continued a rejuvenation that began when team owner Rick Hendrick coaxed him back to a full racing schedule for 2009. Though there has been some rough luck along the way, Martin has nonetheless produced his fattest victory total since 1998, when he won seven races.
What's more, the win in Joliet erased a minor blemish from Martin's record, as the Speedway was the only track at which he never had recorded a top-five finish. But as it did during the Nationwide Series race the previous night, the Speedway rewarded those with the fastest cars, and Martin was among that group.
Half of the NASCAR schedule had elapsed before the flag dropped Saturday, and while that chronology alone did not necessarily thrust the championship picture into vivid Technicolor, if you were in trouble, if you needed to do something soon, you knew who you were.
Whether substantial shuffling was even possible at the Speedway remained the issue. A caution on Lap 39 provided the first significant change, as a shaky stop for then-leader Johnson dropped him six spots and allowed Martin to grab the lead when green-flag racing started again.
But there were few missteps for a while after that. Off a restart following a five-lap caution that ended on Lap 136, Martin got an early challenge from Johnson but pulled away in due time. Same for the green-flag pit stop with less than 80 laps to go: Martin went in with the lead and came out with it.
The last obstacle was the late caution with seven laps to go when Kyle Busch "blew up," in his words, and Martin had to fend off a Jeff Gordon car with four new tires on yet another restart.