|Mark Martin sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 27, 2012. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR/AFP)
RICHMOND, VA. - When 53-year-old Mark Martin won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup pole position 31-years ago at Richmond International Raceway, more than a third of the drivers on Saturday’s grid for the Capital City/Virginia is for Lovers 400 hadn’t even been born yet.
“That’s pretty cool,” Martin said on being informed of the fact.
What is more cool is that Martin is still as excited today as he was back in 1981 when he brought his own self described “little hot rod” to the then half-mile oval at RIR.
And he says he can remember that day as if it was yesterday.
“I can tell you the springs that were in the car, the weight distribution, and I can tell you what I did to the car after qualifying,” he said. “I can tell you everything about it. Changed the right-rear springs before qualifying to tighten it up.
“It was a pretty big deal sitting on the pole with my little late model team. As far as I’m concerned, this is just as big of a deal.”
If anything has changed it is that NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is now a big-time corporate enterprise and there is no room anymore for a single team owner like Martin to show up with a stock car he built himself back at his Batesville, Ark., garage and win anything let alone a pole position.
Today he is a racing gun for hire, competing on a part-time schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55 Toyota, a car that he had absolutely no part in building.
“I couldn’t tell you anything about this car today,” he said. “But that car back in 1981 was my baby.”
Many, including Martin himself, thought his Sprint Cup career was over back in 2005 when he first announced he was retiring from full-time competition after a long, distinguished 19-season long association with Roush Fenway Racing driving the No. 6 Ford.
In fact he ran that 2005 season under the banner “Salute to You” in a tribute to fans who had supported him in his career.
But after two seasons of running a partial schedule with the former Ginn Racing team, Martin signed on to drive the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet full time in 2009.
All he proceeded to do was put that car in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and stay with the team to the end of his contract last season.
Once again facing the prospect of retirement Martin sent out feelers that he still had the fire in his belly to race.
Team owner Michael Waltrip answered the call and now Martin is again on a part-time deal, sharing the No. 55 Toyota with Brain Vickers.
And Martin is happy with what he has.
“They believe in me and we’re just having so much fun,” he said after putting the MWR Toyota on the pole. “When you get to this stage in my career, winning any competition is a cool thing. I get to drive such great race cars.”
He admits he is lucky to be doing what he loves best.
“I’ve been so fortunate to drive fast race cars and work with great people and I can’t believe that MWR are giving me a chance to drive this stuff at this stage of the game,” Martin said. “I’m just a really lucky guy. In my heart, I really want to make MWR better. That’s more important to me than anything.”
Martin said every day he wakes up being thankful that he has a job he loves and he hopes he can be an example to older athletes everywhere.
“I think a lot of guys like to see an old dude like me pull one off every once in a while,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”