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MOTOR RACING

Mark Martin is still moving at age 50

He leads the Chase for the Sprint Cup after coming out of semi-retirement to join Hendrick Motorsports. He has finished second to the series champion four times in his 28-year career.

October 04, 2009|Jim Peltz

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — After nearly winning the pole for today's NASCAR Sprint Cup race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave reporters a perfunctory recap of his qualifying lap and race car.

Then NASCAR's most popular driver was asked about Mark Martin.

Earnhardt took a deep breath, looked down at the microphone and let his affection flow for the 50-year-old veteran.

"I'm real happy for him," Earnhardt said. "He was a bridesmaid for so many years, and so here's one guy that's pulling for him to win a championship this year because he's deserved it."

Martin is trying to win a title for the first time in his 28-year career, one with 40 victories and a long list of disappointments, including being runner-up four times to the series champion and losing the 2007 Daytona 500 by a nose.

A Batesville, Ark., native who drove his first Cup race in 1981 three months after Ronald Reagan became president -- and when Earnhardt was 6 years old -- Martin had slipped into semi-retirement until this year, when he signed with the powerhouse team Hendrick Motorsports to take one more stab at the Sprint Cup.

He's made the most of the opportunity. Martin has five wins and 16 top-10 finishes, overall and holds a slim 10-point lead over Jimmie Johnson ahead of today's race at the 1.5-mile Kansas oval, the third race in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup that determines the season champion.

Martin also nipped Earnhardt's qualifying run here Friday to win a career-high seventh pole of the season.

Indeed, with Hendrick's equipment, Martin has been rejuvenated.

He compared the speed of his No. 5 Chevrolet to that of a cat when one steps on its tail.

"They go really fast," Martin said. "That's kind of like when I stepped on the gas in that 5 car today, it was like stepping on a cat's tail. This thing has so much horsepower."

At the same time, Martin "has amazing car control," Earnhardt said. "He has the ability to really hang a car out that a lot of guys don't possess."

Martin holds a special place for Earnhardt because Earnhardt grew up first watching Martin race against his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, the legendary seven-time champion.

"I watched Mark a lot because he was one of the guys that either Dad had to outrun or had to run with," Earnhardt said. "Him and my dad had some very, very tough battles week after week."

But Martin's recent success reflects more than his ability to drive fast, he said.

"There is something unique in his personality that has maintained his youthfulness as far as his exuberance for competing," Earnhardt said.

"You see a lot of guys, their temperament sort of softens a little bit over time," he said. But Martin "still has the urge and the yearning to do it as if you were in your first season."

Regardless, Johnson remains a widespread favorite to win the title again, especially because he's a former winner at several upcoming Chase tracks, including Kansas Speedway.

"The season comes to us in a way," Johnson agreed. "But we still have to show up and get the job done."

Martin is constantly reminded that he's the sentimental favorite in this year's Chase, a notion he doesn't view as a burden, although he cautioned that, so far, "we're 20% into this Chase."

"I will race with all my heart like I have all my life," he said. "We are going for it, no matter where we are on the racetrack. If we happen to be out there running 25th on Sunday, you can believe we are racing our guts out."

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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