Ingram's Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram THE KID AT 50 Mark Martin's face has more wrinkles than the NASCAR rulebook. And he's got more lines on his stat sheet than any other full-time Sprint Cup driver. Mark Martin, Hendrick ...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
THE KID AT 50
Mark Martin's face has more wrinkles than the NASCAR rulebook. And he's got more lines on his stat sheet than any other full-time Sprint Cup driver.
Technically, Martin is past the half-century mark. But a lot of people don't see it that way. "Mark is a 50-year-old man with a 20-year-old body," says fellow veteran John Andretti.
When Martin wins, it's a signal to the rest of us old folks that we, too, can also bask in the prospect of our own future victories. Like turning down that extra helping of ice cream. Or, getting the grass to grow in the summer.
In his days as a teen sensation, Martin used to have the image of Dennis the Menace painted on his car, to remind the older, established tough guys they were up against The Kid. At that time, Martin sported some curly locks while dominating the American Speed Association, winning 11 poles and five races in the 15-race season in 1980. He was to the ASA what Jeff Gordon later became to the Sprint Cup in terms of youth and game-changing talent.
Nowadays, when Chicagoland winner Martin shows up in victory lane driving for Hendrick Motorsports, he sports a crew cut. It's the same workaday haircut as when he first started racing in the Sprint Cup with Jack Roush way back in 1988.
Martin worries more than most. Dale Earnhardt Sr. once said Martin looked more unhappy in victory lane than other drivers when they finished tenth. There's never enough victories for Martin, it seems, whose last victory prior to joining Hendrick Motorsports was with Roush in 2005.
In his final year with Roush in 2006, Martin was "burned out." He switched to a part-time ride with Bobby Ginn and after the real estate mogul's empire collapsed moved to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Martin took over the Chevy and car number of the very popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. without blinking an eye, suitable for a driver who once competed in the ASA with a broken left leg and right ankle, plus a foot fractured in four places.
He needed "a chance to reevaluate things and a change of scenery," said Martin of his departure from Roush. The big break in his switch back to a full-time schedule came in part because Martin drew so much praise after Goodyear tire tests from Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. "Rick Hendrick, he wouldn't quit. Between the confidence that I gained driving the (DEI) car and Rick, I was persuaded to do it."
Like aging, worrying is something the common man can identify with. Maybe that's why Martin has so many steady supporters in the media center and in the grandstands. He's got a ton of money, but there's nothing carefree or status-conscious about his life. He's a regular visitor to victory lane, in part, because he spends so much time worrying about how to get there.
There's a glimmer that Martin has finally learned how to have a good time. His league-leading four victories for Hendrick are suitably surprising even to him. For once he can only smile. "I had no idea it could be this much fun," he said.
There are some problems for Martin. The day after races has never been easy for drivers due to the wear and tear a stock car race puts on the body. "When I'm pumped up driving fast racecars," he said, "I certainly don't feel 50. But I do on Monday mornings."
And, Martin does not like the new double-file re-start procedure. They put a lot of wear and tear on a leader's nerves as the laps wind down. "What's exciting about it is you take the guy that probably earned a spot and you mess him up," he said. "That's kind of what it is a little bit, right?"
Just as Tony Stewart figured it out at Daytona, Martin applied the coup de grace at Chicagoland, because he had the right experience as well as the fastest car. Some of that experience he gained when teammate Johnson passed him in the high groove on a restart, nearly turning Martin sideways in the slipstream.
For reasons such as this, the double-file restarts keep races more interesting in the late stages, both from a strategy point of view and the action on the track. It's likely to be the equivalent of the American League's designated hitter: a gimmick to create more fan interest that becomes a tradition. Martin believes it's more suited to the circus.
He has more to worry about than late-race cautions and the double-file lane choice. He's not confirmed for the Chase for the Championship yet. Some bad luck has kicked one of the steadyest performers in the business in the pants and in the points. After winning in Chicago, he was 1th in the standings with seven races remaining to determine the top 12.
It's been quite a ride, now 39 victories and counting. One thing is missing: the big championship trophy. A man of his accomplishments deserves to have one as a reference for the inevitable days when age really is a factor.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.