Surprise Martin Is Contending

For more than 10 years, Mark Martin was one of the guys to beat for the Winston Cup championship. Should we be surprised he’s in contention again this year?

Back in 1990, Martin was penalized at Richmond for an illegal carburetor spacer but still maintained focus and drive to challenge for the title. Should we be surprised if he overcomes another penalty to fight for the championship again this year?

No, and no.

Martin isn’t a guy you easily keep down. For a while there, though, you had to wonder. After finishing sixth or better in the title chase 11 straight years, Martin slipped to eighth in 2000, and then to 12th in 2001.

With the slip came the whispers. Maybe Martin had lost it somehow. Maybe he was simply taking a big cut of Viagra’s big sponsorship. Maybe he didn’t really care anymore.

Seems kinda funny now, doesn’t it? Anyone who watched Martin drive the last 40 laps of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway learned one thing: Martin still wants it.

He said after the race he wanted it more for his team than he did for himself. Whatever the motivation, Martin has proven he still has the drive and the talent to run up front. Sunday’s victory was his eighth Top 10 of the season – no one has more.

Wouldn’t it be odd that, in the one year no one expected him to win the championship, he would finally win his elusive title?

And, yes, he is in the championship hunt.

“Yes, that’s right. We’re not out of the race,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, we did get in two wrecks (at Darlington and Talladega), but, performance-wise, we’re a contender week in and week out. Now if we want to go and win this thing, then we’re gonna have to put some races up like Charlotte.

This is the first week, along with The Winston, that we had the kind of performance that we need to be able to put forth to be a contender and then everything else has to go right too. This race team can do it.”

Of course, Martin knows that action speak louder than words.

“Now the trick is, can we go to (this weekend’s race at) Dover and contend?” Martin said. “And go to Pocono and contend? And go to Michigan and contend? If we start doing that and start running like we ran at Charlotte, then this could be the year. It may be this year. It might be next year. It might be the year after. It might be the one after that because we’ve got a long-term commitment here between all of us. It might not ever happen either, I don’t know, but I’m beyond expecting.

“Do I expect a championship? No. Do I expect to win? No. I expect to do good though. We’ve got good people and good cars and good stuff and I expect to do good. I came to Charlotte expecting to do good, and it turned out to be a nice one.”

And the victory had to be a confidence booster to the Ben Leslie-led team, even with the $50,000 fined handed down Tuesday by NASCAR because Martin’s car was 1/8th-inch too low.

“This is a big win. This is big for these guys,” Martin said. “This is a good year for us. We’re Top 5 in points, and if we can start racing like this, week in and week out – we just have one more little step, and we’re probably not there yet – but if we can keep picking it up and keep having good luck, we could even contend for the championship this year.

“I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It hasn’t made my career, but I’m the happiest man on Earth right now.”

Martin already had more top-five finishes in 2002 than he did all of last season, but one hurdle remained. Roush Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch both had won already this year, but Martin was still looking to end a long drought.

“We were doing pretty good before (Sunday), but we needed that shot in the arm,” Martin said. “This is why you work so hard. These guys all make big sacrifices in their lives to do this, and you need to taste it once in a while. It’s the reward for all the blood sweat and tears.”

Are there more rewards to come? Is the biggest reward of all waiting at the end of the season? No one can predict the future, of course, but Martin believes better times are ahead.

“I don’t know if I’ll win 10 more races this year or never win again,” Martin said. “I don’t know. These things are not that easy to win and they’re not that easy to predict, but I’ll be honest with you, I think that we can go and contend at Dover. Lowe’s Motor Speedway is one of my favorite racetracks. So is Dover. So is Pocono. So is Michigan.

“So it’s coming. My time of the year, and Ben knows it, is coming. It starts here. We’ve gotten the thorns in our side out of our way, and there are a bunch of them that hit at the beginning of the year. We ran fourth at Richmond the other week, and I told them that was just like winning: ‘If you run fourth with me at Richmond, you all won.’

“I’m very pleased and honored to be working with some guys that seem to respect and admire me for who I am and what I’ve done. I’m really blessed and fortunate.”

And hungry. And driven. And a winner – again.

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