Man On A Mission

Who was that man in the Mark Martin suit Sunday night?

Over the years, we've grown accustomed to Martin climbing from his car in Victory Lane, looking more like a guy who just finished, say, fifth.

Doughnuts in the grass? Never. A clockwise victory lap? Not this guy.

But following Sunday's Coca Cola 600, we got both. And when Martin finally climbed from his car in the makeshift Victory Lane, the fitness fanatic was as breathless as a fat guy on a Stairmaster.

There were several reasons for Martin's uncharacteristic display of emotions:

*After 32 Winston Cup victories between 1989-2000, he'd gone 73 races without a win.

*This was his first win in the high-profile Coke 600, not only NASCAR's longest race, but one of its marquee events.

*And there was also the matter of that $1 million bonus he took from series sponsor RJ Reynolds.

But, perhaps, more than anything, Martin's emotions sprang from the manner in which he had to win Sunday's race.

For most of the closing laps, this was a two-man battle between Martin and his Roush Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth. But a late spin by Mike Skinner changed the entire complexion.

For whatever reason, the usually trigger-happy NASCAR officials decided against a caution flag, which surprised everyone in the stands and, possibly, a few drivers. It appeared to be a good no-call, but it was still kinda surprising.

Whether Skinner's spin was the culprit, who knows, but suddenly most of the field seemed slightly off-kilter, and over the final couple of laps Martin faced a flurry of potential landmines in the form of lapped traffic.

He threaded the needle twice in the final two laps, and also barreled into Turn 1 on Lap 400 alongside Jimmy Spencer. He maneuvered lapped traffic in an effort that appeared desperate - you know, like a man who hadn't won in over a year.

"The last couple laps... it really boiled down to one thing. If I gave Matt the opportunity to get beside me, we were gonna lose," said Martin. "I couldn't waste any time. I had to keep the momentum up. I had to put the car somewhere.

"It put a lot of pressure on me. Those last 40 laps, we wanted to win badly. It was really, really important to win this race."

At this time, it was important to win any race for Martin. And it truly showed.

"I've never won a race and drove that hard," he said.

The mental strain may have been as taxing as the physical toll.

"It was real intense, man, I tell you," said Martin. "How do you drive faster than you can go and not make a mistake? It's a tough situation. I wasn't fast enough, and if I went any faster I was gonna make a mistake."

But, to no one's surprise, the driver with one of the game's top reputations didn't bobble. His long-awaited victory was a highlight-reel ending to a two-weekend Charlotte visit that will be remembered for what happened on and off the track.

NASCAR's trip to Charlotte each May provides one of the season's annual jumping-off points. The 600 concludes the closest thing NASCAR has to a spring break - a week off after Richmond, followed by the non-points Winston exhibition last week, and now the resumption of the marathon schedule.

The scheduled breather, along with the heavy attention given to events here in the hub of stock-car racin', makes Charlotte a favorite place for press conferences - sponsor announcements, personnel changes, etc. There's always news here, but this year the news was outweighed by rumored news:

Elliott Sadler, Steve Park, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd … all of them, and more, did their laps on the rumor mill over the past two weeks. Even one of the races - The Winston - was the subject of insider gossip.

The increased attention from fans and media, along with a rash of rumor-mill Internet sites (we don't do rumors here), has made rumor-chasing as much a part of the sport as rightside rubber and hearing loss.

Every sport has its trade rumors concerning players, it's "death watches" concerning a coach on the hot seat, and for years NASCAR people wanted to be treated like the other games. They're getting there.

It's a mixed blessing for them. It's tough chasing the rumors and putting out the fires, and can be an obvious strain on all involved. But it's also a sign that a WHOLE bunch of people care enough to pay attention. What do you think the Indy-car world would give for that type of scrutiny?

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