Martin polished, not polished off

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comMarch 8, 2013 

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AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 02: Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, gets into his car in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2, 2013 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

JARED WICKERHAM — Getty

Eighteen-some years ago, Carl Edwards was driving four-cylinder modifieds in St. Louis. He was looking for an edge to rise in motorsports, and he noticed Mark Martin excelling in NASCAR as an advocate of great physical conditioning.

Just last week Edwards turned to Martin in the garage and reminded him of that. At 54 – long after others have retired – Martin still is racing, and beating, drivers half his age.

“The man is an inspiration to all of us in this sport,” Edwards said Sunday. “He’s the reason I started working out. … Now, to be parked next to him in the garage, and see him still do it at that level? He and I talked about it the other day – he said he just has this desire that never changed.”

Martin isn’t just driving, he is excelling. After finishing third in the Daytona 500, he won the pole at Phoenix for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. He led most of the first 60 laps before a tire problem relegated him to 21st.

You know who is most surprised by all this success? Martin. He asks himself constantly why team owner Michael Waltrip and crew chief Rodney Childers place so much faith in him.

“It’s pretty amazing that I get to drive a race car for a team like this that truly has a chance; a chance to win,” Martin said last weekend. “They support me and believe in me more than I believe in myself.”

In sports, age and experience are supposed to be a trade-off. What you deposit in collective knowledge, you seemingly withdraw in reaction time, endurance and focus. Martin decided a long time ago that strenuous, constant workouts could give him an edge.

He isn’t sure that made much difference when he was young, but now it is an absolute prerequisite to his participation.

“No doubt the longevity of my career is hugely dependent on that,” Martin said.

Martin isn’t always sure when his collective experiences are a plus, vs. a minus, in the real-time decision-making of a Sprint Cup race. Processing all that collective data isn’t always an advantage.

“You do have to play to your strengths,” Martin said. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve over-driven and I’ve under-driven. I’ve driven just right.”

Martin gets uneasy when it is suggested he knows things younger drivers might not. Never having won a season championship, he asks what he could possibly know that five-time champion Jimmie Johnson doesn’t about navigating 500 times around an oval track.

But age does convey perspective. When you’re close to the end of a career, the little things don’t make you so crazy anymore.

Before “if I qualified 30th, my lip would be out and I’d have this long face,” Martin said.

After winning the pole Friday, he was asked about Harry Gant, who at 52 became the oldest winner of a race on NASCAR’s top series. Martin’s career overlapped Gant’s, and Martin was quick to say he doesn’t deserve the comparison.

“Whether I was to break that record or not, I look at Harry Gant and don’t feel I measure. That’s just me,” Martin said.

“We’ll always look at him as someone who accomplished more than I did. He was the guy I couldn’t beat. He’s an incredible guy.”

Kind of like how Edwards describes Martin.

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