YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Martin Plays the Defending Champion Very Well

Auto racing: Though he refuses to put his California 500 title above any other, he feels at home on track.


There is nothing like having won a race there to put a driver in a good mood when he returns to a track.

That's why Mark Martin has such a glow as he prepares for Sunday's California 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at California Speedway. He won it last year. And he also won two IROC races on the two-mile D-shaped oval.

"I can't put a finger on it, but California Speedway just seems to suit my driving style," said the veteran from Batesville, Ark. "It's a nice, big open speedway and we seem to adapt to it real quickly.

"It's the kind of a track where we can go, unload the car and let it all out."

Martin has won 30 races but he refuses to rate his win at California any better than any of the others.

"I don't think people realize how hard it is to win a race, any race," he said. "They're all huge. You can't go to John Andretti and tell him his win [two weeks ago] at Martinsville doesn't count as much as a win at California, or Daytona. Because it does.

"It's incredibly hard to win. This week there will be 50 cars and 50 teams at Fontana. It will be the only race in the whole wide world for them on Sunday. When it's over, there will be only one winner. All the others will pack up and head for the next race.

"Sure, winning at California was awesome, but so was winning at Michigan and Charlotte and Las Vegas. It was just as cool winning at Dover. I'm not about to put one above the other."

Martin is upbeat, however, about leaving Talladega Superspeedway, where he finished third in last Sunday's DieHard 500--his car and himself intact.

"You just know there's going to be a big wreck every time you go to Talladega and run [carburetor] restrictor plates," he said. "It happened again and we were just lucky it didn't get us. The accidents got us at both races last year."

Nine cars were damaged in last Sunday's race, among them those of defending champion Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace. Martin escaped to finish third and retain third place in the Winston Cup standings. He has 1,285 points and trails teammate Jeff Burton, with 1,369, and Dale Jarrett, with 1,329.

All three drive Fords.

"Why are Fords leading in points?" Martin repeated a question. "It just means that Gordon [in his Chevrolet] has had his troubles. When you're leading in points, it not only means you have had decent performances, it also means you've had no problems."

Martin credits his team owner, Jack Roush, and his teammate, Burton, as those most responsible for his success.

"My relationship with Roush is very important to me," he said. "I am a very simple person--I think of things in simple ways--so the best way I can describe my relationship with Roush is by comparing it to marriage."

And Burton, Martin says, is "the best driver in NASCAR."

"It's his car knowledge. It sounds kind of weird, but if you took a bucket of parts, threw them on the floor for all the drivers to put a race car together, Jeff would put it together first and best. That is very important in this business, to be able to help do the job yourself."

Martin joined NASCAR with that same attitude and talent 18 years ago as a 22-year-old graduate of the American Speed Assn., a kid from Arkansas with a passion for speed.

"I built a Winston Cup car myself with zero knowledge, used my little old ASA crew to run five races that year. We sat on two poles, got a third in one race and finished two others."

His career didn't really take off, though, until 1988, when he joined Roush. He didn't win his first race until his 113th start, at Rockingham, N.C., in 1989.

Sunday's race will be his 400th.

"I didn't realize that until someone mentioned it this week," he said. "I don't get caught up in stuff like that. I'm too busy racing or getting ready to race.

"I might not have any Winston Cup championships or won the Daytona 500 but I'm real proud of the success I've had. I'm not at all disappointed at things not yet accomplished."

Los Angeles Times Articles