More Like Martin Of Old

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LAS VEGAS – Mark Martin hasn’t been smiling much the past year or two. Oh, sure, he has said he’s been happy, but postrace frowns tell another story.

Martin didn’t win in 2001, and he finished third in Sunday’s UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But one look at him minutes after the race proved that winning isn’t quite everything.

“Hey guys,” Martin beamed when he sat down in the infield media center for his postrace press conference. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”

He’s right. The top-three finishers from Winston Cup races are brought in for press conferences, but Martin didn’t finish in the Top 3 all of 2001.

That was a 180-degree turn from previous seasons, for he averaged 11 top-three finishes the previous five years, including 17 in 1998 when he won seven times.

Martin swapped crew chiefs with Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch in the offseason, with Ben Leslie taking over the reigns of Martin’s team. Martin was sixth at Daytona, but struggled at North Carolina Speedway last week.

And after the first two practices Saturday in Las Vegas, Martin figured he was still struggling.

“I wasn’t that upbeat about how we were running (Saturday morning) in the first session, and I wasn’t doing cartwheels after the second session,” Martin said.

Martin’s feelings were playing tricks on him. He was 24th fastest in the first practice, and third-quickest in Happy Hour.

“I looked at the lap times, and the lap times looked pretty darn good,” Martin said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been competitive... I was cautious about being optimistic.”

Then the race started, and Martin stayed in the Top 10.

“When the race got going, I looked in the mirror and guys weren’t coming,” Martin said. “I was actually tracking some folks down from the front, and our race team got the car better. We were the best we were all day (at the end), and that reminds me of the old days.

“We squeezed every ounce out of that piece that you could possibly squeeze out of it, and I’m very proud of that. We’ve done that a few times in the last year, but sometimes that gave us a 19th-place finish.”

This time, Martin was within sight of the leaders. As the laps wound down, in fact, Martin was tracking second-place Jeremy Mayfield. Martin came up short, but that wasn’t about to disappoint him.

Then again, finishing third in one race isn’t going to get him too high.

“I don’t know. This was a good race today,” Martin said. “Check with me after about 10 of these in a row, and I’ll tell you if it’s a turnaround.”

Yes, Martin is glad to finish third, but he’s not ready to say whether he’s back to where he was a few years ago. Perhaps that realization will keep Martin and his team fighting to get better each week.

Martin even wonders which of his teams is the real No. 6. Is it the one that finished sixth at Daytona? Or 21st at Rockingham? Or third at Las Vegas?

“Running sixth at Daytona was nice, but you and I both know that’s not real racing,” Martin said. “I mean, not the same kind of racing. That’s four-times-a-year racing, where this is 35 times a year racing here.

“It didn’t really count in the book of recovery for us. I was happy to get it and we took whatever good PR we could from it, but then we went to Rockingham and raced all day as hard as we could go for 21st, so we weren’t out of the woods yet.”

Still, though, he was encouraged at the way his car handled at Las Vegas.

“This shows that we can go through the corners as good as other folks,” Martin said. “I’ll be honest with you, that used to be my strong suit, and I haven’t seen that in a year. I haven’t been able to run through the corners with these guys in a year, so I thought I forgot how.

“But I’m gonna tell you something, that was easy compared to what I had been doing. I’m telling you, that was easy compared to what I’d been doing. It’s really hard back there in the pack.”

But it sure is nice at the front of the pack – for a change.

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