Mark Martin is an extraordinary gentleman

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Martin, driving in place of the injured Tony Stewart, will make his 58th career Sprint Cup start at Charlotte Saturday night.

KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Oct. 9, 2013) – The word ordinary, by itself, alludes to someone or something with no special or distinctive features. Add in the prefix “extra” and the meaning changes quite dramatically. Rather than referencing something not so special, extraordinary is used to describe something very unusual or remarkable.

Mark Martin, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Mark Martin, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

It’s an apt method for describing the accomplishments of a select group of gentlemen competing in this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

As the home track for the majority of NASCAR teams, Charlotte has hosted 109 Sprint Cup events in its 53-year history, with 45 different drivers having visited victory lane. Of those 45 different winners, only 28 have multiple Charlotte wins. That list becomes even more select when checking drivers with four or more wins. There are only 11 in that category, and Mark Martin, interim driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is one of them.

Martin, driving in place of the injured Tony Stewart, will make his 58th career Sprint Cup start at Charlotte Saturday night in the Bank of America 500. In doing so, Martin will enter a league of his own, as he will own the most Sprint Cup starts at Charlotte among active drivers. He currently shares the mark with Terry Labonte.

Of Martin’s 40 career Sprint Cup wins, four have been earned at Charlotte. Only three other active drivers have four or more wins at Charlotte, with five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson leading the way with six victories. Jeff Gordon trails with five wins and Kasey Kahne, like Martin, has four victories.

Martin picked up his first Sprint Cup win at Charlotte in October 1992. He passed polesitter Alan Kulwicki for the lead on lap 40 and led the next 22 laps around the 1.5-mile oval. As the laps wound down, Martin and Kulwicki traded the top spot a handful of times, with Martin gaining the upper hand with a little more than 30 laps to go. Martin led six times for 107 laps en route to the victory.

With his second Charlotte win in October 1995, Martin embarked on an extraordinary run. Beginning with his victory in the 1995 UAW-GM Quality 500 and ending with his most recent Charlotte win – the 2002 Coca-Cola 600 – Martin rattled off 13 top-10 finishes in 14 races, 11 of which were results of fifth or better, among them a win in October 1998. His lone finish outside the top-10 was a 12th-place effort in the 2000 Coca-Cola 600.

Martin’s Charlotte resume also includes two poles, and his 18 top-fives and 24 top-10s lead all active drivers.

Already in elite company, Martin will attempt to burnish his Charlotte record by adding 334 more laps to his current tally of 18,349 laps completed since wheeling a Pontiac in the 1982 World 600. In a race where experience is just as important as horsepower and handling, Martin enters the Bank of America 500 with a solid portfolio.

MARK MARTIN, Interim Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

The term “race the racetrack” is often used to describe racing at Charlotte. What does that mean?

“Charlotte is a challenging racetrack, and the more challenging a racetrack is, the more you hear ‘race the racetrack’. At Charlotte, don’t try to go faster than your car will. Concentrate on maximizing what you have. Charlotte is a really different racetrack since the last repave (2006). It’s got a new personality now. It’s a whole different place to race on than it was before the repave. It still forces Goodyear to put a hard tire on the car. So, the grip level is really high, until it starts to slip, and then the grip level goes way off. So when the car breaks loose it’s really, really hard to control. You have to push the car, but you can’t overstep your boundaries like you can at Atlanta where the pavement is worn out. Any track with worn-out pavement you can overstep your boundaries, slide the car, gather it up and keep on digging and lose very little time.”

How much does the track change from day to night?

“It doesn’t change as much now with the repave as it did in the old days. Back in the day before this last repave, it had a big personality swing. Huge, in fact. Now, the balance change is not big. The speed change, however, is pretty dramatic. It used to have a big balance change along with a speed change. Now, it just picks up speed. It really loses a lot of speed when the sun is out.”

None of your practice sessions are at night, so how do you go about setting your car up for the race?

“It used to be extreme, going from day to night, but the repave cut that extreme in half. Practicing during the day and racing at night, that’s just something we do. We all know it. We all think we know what to expect and we can predict it fairly well.”

You’ve had some dominant runs at Charlotte, no more so than in October 1998 when you led 215 of the race’s 334 laps. How elusive is it to find a setup that can be that dominant?

“You get it accidentally. When you’ve got it, like we had it there in ’98, it’s easy. It’s the easiest you’ll ever have it. The car hauls the mail. It’s easy to adjust. It’s easy to keep on track with changes in the weather or whatnot. And when it does get away from you, you wonder how you ever got it in the first place because you can just work and work and work and never find it again. But that’s how a lot of this sport is.

“Everybody works hard, so when you run good, you say, ‘Man, we’ve been working hard’. When you run bad, a lot of people don’t say, ‘Man, we’ve been working hard,’ but they’ve probably been working even harder. It’s not all a product of hard work. It’s smart work. You work in the right areas, and you might hit on something. Anytime anything changes, all these teams work in different areas, and the one that happens to work in the area that produces the most fruit runs the fastest. Part of that is experience and luck and smarts, and part of it is the good fortune that you chose to work in the area that produced the most fruit.”

Explain a lap around Charlotte.

“The racetrack is fairly smooth, although it is starting to get some minor bumps in it. They’re not really big, just a couple little washboards here and there. But what happens is after you cross the start/finish line, you drive out to the wall. On the turn-in of turn one, you’re at the top of a hill, and right when you turn into that corner, the racetrack drops out from under you. You go off into a hole, and when that car lands – even though the track is smooth now – it loads up really heavy and creates a push. Then after that push in the landing, you usually have your car freed up enough that it’s actually a little too loose from there, on around and up off the corner of turn two. Turn two is pretty tight because the back straightaway is so straight, so it closes in on you pretty hard. It’s a tough corner to get off of. You head down the back straightaway into turn three, which is a fairly sharp corner as well. There are a few bumps into there, but not many. It’s really difficult to get the car to arc into that corner the way you want it to. If you drive it straight into that corner, it wants to push on landing. And if you try to stay out and arc into the corner, then it usually gets loose or, more often than not, won’t turn down if you wait too late to turn it in. From the middle off of turn four, if the sun is blaring, the car tends to want to slide a lot. But if the sun isn’t blasting that corner, the grip is pretty good. It’s smooth. That wall will come back in on you coming off of (turn) four, and you’ll see some people tag that wall, but only when the sun is blaring on that corner is it really overly challenging.”

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Tags charlotte, chevrolet, martin, nascar sprint cup