Mark Martin is a lot of things, besides the guy who will on Sunday drive in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway for the 50th time in his career.
BROOKLYN, Mich. - Mark Martin is a lot of things, besides the guy who will on Sunday drive in a Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway for the 50th time in his career.
Occasionally, Martin is the dignified and revered elder statesman of the garage area. At other times, he is the aging relief pitcher out in the bullpen whose knuckler still has enough dance left in it to baffle the hitters.
Martin is also a health and fitness fanatic who at 51 years old is the undisputed aerobic superior to most of his much younger racing counterparts. But Martin can also be your grouchy old uncle from Florida, standing on the porch in shorts and black socks, and always complaining about the government.
He will charm the daylights out of sponsors, and then drag the media out behind the woodshed, take a good switch from a nearby tree, and let them have it, as he did recently over the seemingly endless line of questions about his future in the sport.
Martin ran his first Cup race in 1981, and Sunday he'll race against Joey Logano, who was born nine years after Martin's debut in NASCAR's top series. Now, almost 30 years after that baptismal run in Cup, Martin has no obvious hitch in his giddy-up. He comes to Michigan locked and loaded.
"We can't slip up. We can't have a bad day," Martin said about what Sunday's performance mandates. "We've got to keep moving forward."
Forward is where Martin advanced last weekend, when his 19th-place finish at Watkins Glen inched him ahead of Clint Bowyer and into 12th place in the Sprint Cup points standings. The CARFAX 400 at Michigan International Speedway is the first of four final races before NASCAR sets the field for its lucrative pseudo-postseason - the Chase for the Sprint Cup - when only the top 12 drivers race for the really big money.
When Martin, who won five times last season and finished second in points but has no victories in 2010, talks about the game plan, he sounds more like legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler giving a halftime speech than a stock car driver assessing the points race.
"We knew this was going to be a fight for us. And it's definitely not over," Martin said. "We've gained points and we have got to keep doing that. This team is improving every week; we just have to keep that going in Michigan this weekend. It's a good feeling to be back in there, but it's not at all a relief. We have four races to go. Anything can happen."
Martin, who has won 40 Cup races in his career, gave his Hendrick Motorsports team its most recent win at Michigan in the June race a year ago. Martin dug his way out of the back of the field after starting in the 32nd position, then took the lead on the final lap.
His karma usually has been sound here - Martin has won five Cup races at MIS - his best stat sheet top line at any track on the circuit. He has been in the top five 17 times, and has 29 top 10 finishes in his 49 Cup races at the two-mile Irish Hills layout. He sees his fortunes for 2010 trending upwards as the series returns to MIS, where Martin was a disappointing 16th in the June Cup race.
"I think if you look back at how we improved at Indianapolis and how we improved at Pocono, that we have to look at Michigan as another track where we can build momentum and gain some points," said Martin, who repeatedly has affirmed that he is going to be back with Hendrick for 2011.
"We're taking the same car this weekend that we took to both of those tracks. It's my favorite car in the whole Hendrick stable, so that gives me a little confidence, too. Anything can happen though, and we need to be prepared for those anythings."
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