By Pete Iacobelli
FLORENCE, S.C. - It was about a year ago that Mark Martin set off on a NASCAR ride like few others in his stellar career: five Sprint Cup race victories, a runner-up finish to champ Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the championship and, at 51 years old, a renewed passion for his life's work.
"It was a magical year, last year, for me," Martin said Wednesday. "And I still feel the magic each time I strap into a race car."
Martin is seventh in the points standings going into today's race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a week off, and he believes his team is more ready to win when it matters most - down the stretch.
Martin certainly made headlines with victories at Phoenix International Raceway and Darlington Raceway last spring. He even beat chase master Johnson to the punch early with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the first of the 10 playoff races that determine the champion.
However, Johnson's experience shone through as the No. 48 team took an unprecedented fourth consecutive NASCAR title.
"I hope (this year) that we'll have the hammer when it's time to go," Martin said.
He spent lunchtime Wednesday talking with about 200 or so fans who signed up for a question-and-answer session with him. He tackled everything from his celebrated workout regimen ("Wednesday was leg day," he offered) to how he meshes (very well, he said) with his equally famous fellow Hendrick drivers.
Mostly, Martin spoke of his joy for racing.
"I've said several times already today, if there were any beach in the world I'd rather be on than at the racetrack, that's where I'd be," he said, grinning broadly.
He rose to NASCAR stardom with owner Jack Roush, winning 35 races over 19 seasons. However, much of that time, Martin burned for a championship. Anything less was a disappointment, no matter how much success he had.
And Martin came close - he had 12 top-five series finishes at Roush Racing - but was never able to break through and grew more frustrated about his profession. Bothered by a surgically repaired back that didn't feel right, Martin sought alternatives.
"I drove that (Roush No.) 6 car to win that championship, and I think that left me a little hollow," he said.
He became a part-time Sprint Cup racer in 2007 and '08, planning to ease gradually from the only profession he'd known.
Then something surprising happened. Martin stopped worrying about titles and focused on racing. He felt as fulfilled in the car at 48 years old as he did as a smallish 15-year-old feeling the dirt under his wheels for the first time.
He reached a deal with his friend, owner Rick Hendrick, to run full time in 2009, and the results were astounding.
Martin won his first race in four years at Phoenix, then proved that wasn't a fluke by outlasting the field at Darlington, winning for the second time at the track "Too Tough To Tame" after breaking through there in 1993.
He's on board with Hendrick through 2011 and can't imagine a day without racing.
Martin says it's not fair to compare his Roush time with last season with Hendrick, "but I'm by far the happiest I've ever been in my life right now."
Martin hoped he'd finally succeed at last month's Daytona 500, a white whale on his standout NASCAR resume. Things looked good when he won the pole for the first time. However, he finished 12th and left 0-for-50 at Sprint Cup's most famous layout.
"Listen," he told the fans, "I was at Daytona for a week and a half and I didn't make one good move the whole time. It was pitiful."
Things have picked up since then. Martin had top-five finishes at California and Las Vegas. He was in line for another good ending at Atlanta when he got caught up in the chaos after Carl Edwards sent Brad Keselowski airborne in a retaliatory bump and finished 33rd.
Even if Martin can't duplicate 2009, he's exactly where he wants to be.
"I know I can't do anything that makes me feel like racing does," he said.