DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Mark Martin knows his way around the track at Daytona International Speedway. But as he prepares to race in his 20th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Martin is still looking for his first win on the famous 2.5-mile oval.
Martin, who makes his home in Daytona, started his first 500 in 1982 and finished 31st. Since then he has had four finishes in the top five and been in the top 10 seven times. Martin has won more than $2 million racing in the 500, but winning the race has eluded him.
“Somebody told me that this will be my 20th Daytona 500 and we are still looking for that first win here, Martin said. “You never can tell, but I can t think of any better way to start the year than by winning this race. At the least we feel that we will be competitive, and I m really excited about getting back out there on the track.
Martin, whose 33 Winston Cup wins put him fourth on the win list among active drivers, has started in 509 straight races, the third-longest string of any current driver and the seventh-longest streak in Cup history. He thinks that kind of consistency will eventually pay off on this storied track.
“I m anxious to run here, and optimistic about my chances of winning this thing, Martin said. “I m feeling such good vibes from everyone on the team. Our pit-stop practice has been phenomenal and I feel the electricity every time I m around these guys. It just feels like it felt in the past when we had really great seasons. I m getting all the good vibes.
Martin feels like he has been getting close here in the 500, finishing in the top 10 in seven of the last 11 editions of The Great American Race.
“I m really excited about the car we have for the 500, said Martin, who had the 20th-fastest time in Sunday s qualifying runs. “Qualifying around this place is a non-issue, but we had a great test here in January and that has us feeling pretty good. The car has been a little bit disappointing on speed, but this is a car we really chose for this race based on the way it drafted in testing. As the week goes on, we ll tend to forget about how we did in the trials and start to feel good about what we ve got for the race.
NICE TO BE IN FRONT: Throughout the 2003 racing season, Elliott Sadler kept looking for that break, that one piece of good luck that would get his M&M s Ford to the front late in a race. It never happened, and Sadler finished the year a disappointing 22nd in the points race with just two top-five finishes and nine DNFs in 36 races. After qualifying second-fastest on Sunday, Sadler will be on the outside of Row 1 to start the Daytona 500, and he sees that as a product of his team s resolve to get better, no matter what it took.
“Last year, we took a lot of beating up over at our race team, Sadler said. “But our guys spent a lot of long nights in the shop over the winter trying to make this thing better, and it seems to be paying off.
GORDON/REDEMPTION: After finishing a dismal 39th in qualifying for the Daytona 500, two-time winner Jeff Gordon is trying to shake off the poor start and look for a second chance in the twin Gatorade 125s on Thursday. Sunday s qualifying determined only the front row for the 500, and the rest of the field gets lined up based on the Thursday races.
“That was pretty disappointing, said Gordon, who in 11 previous Daytona 500s has qualified worse than 13th only once. “But the good thing about Daytona is you race your way in the 125s for your starting position, so I look forward to that.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? Ryan Newman, who led the top circuit with 11 poles last season, realizes he will find himself in a somewhat awkward position the next time he wins a race. Newman s principal sponsor is Alltel, a major cell phone company. Now that Nextel, a chief rival of Alltel, is the main sponsor on the circuit, it could make for a dicey moment if the two share the winner s circle. “I just want to be the champion, Newman said. “Whether it s Alltel or Nextel or whatever-tel, I just want to be the champion.