Thursday May 7th, 2009

You knew it was coming when Mark Martin snapped his 97-race winless streak last month in Phoenix.

The 50-year-old Martin had tap-danced around the subject of retirement all season long, but after he reached Victory Lane in the Valley of the Sun, it seemed only a matter of time until he committed to driving for Rick Hendrick fulltime in 2010. And so the announcement earlier this week that Martin had indeed signed on with Hendrick to pilot the No. 5 Chevy in '10 comes as no surprise. The question is this: Will Martin be a championship contender in the next two Chases?

"Mark Martin has lost nothing," Carl Edwards told me earlier this year. "The guy is incredible. Everyone respects him. Everyone respects how he races. He does it the right way. He could probably keep doing this for another 10 years."

Most drivers tend to lose their edge when they hit their 40th birthday. The reaction time slows, the hand-eye-foot coordination isn't as sharp, and the willingness to make a heart-thumping three-wide pass at 190 mph weakens. But Martin is different. Over the previous two seasons he skipped 24 races, driving only a part-time schedule. But the time away from the track appears to have done a funny thing: It's made Martin better.

The proof is in the results. Consider in 10 starts this season Martin has one win, three poles, and five top-10 finishes (50 percent of his starts). In his previous 48 starts in '07 and '08, Martin had zero wins, zero poles, and 22 top-10s (45.8 percent of his starts). "I'm in the best condition of my life," Martin said this week when he announced that he was coming back to Hendrick fulltime in 2010. "Going to the race track every weekend is still really fun, and that's the key. There's more gas in my tank."

The biggest influence on Martin's decision clearly was Rick Hendrick. The top owner in the sport, Hendrick has supplied Martin with an elite crew chief (Alan Gustafson) and elite equipment. If for no other reason, this is why Martin will be a serious player in the Chase both this year and next. Because once you combine a top-tier team with a driver who rarely makes mistakes on the track and excels at diagnosing setup problems, then you have a recipe for a contender.

For the past 15 years, Martin has owned a dreaded title in NASCAR: Best Driver To Have Never Won A Championship. Martin has finished second in the final points standings four times in his long career, but he's never hoisted the big trophy at season's end. That could change this fall. Because even though he's currently 15th in the standings, Martin has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series over the past two months. Consider: In his last six starts, he's ripped off five top-10 finishes. Of course, every week -- including Saturday at Darlington -- offers another chance for bad luck to sink his ship.

What's really hurting him point-wise right now is that he has three finishes this season of 40th or worse. But none were his fault: one was the result of a blown engine (California), one was due to a cut tire (Atlanta), and one was due to wreck not of his making (Talladega). If you replace those three finishes with, say, three 10th place runs, Martin would be in the top-three in points. Luck plays a bigger role in NASCAR than in any other sport, and so far this season, Martin hasn't had much of it.

But in racing, as in life, luck almost always turns. And who knows? If Martin's does, we could be looking at the first 50-year-old champion in the history of NASCAR. And the possibility of that, no doubt, is what really lured Martin back.

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