DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin has never won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 or the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, but the 53-year-old driver feels no regret.
He is a man comfortable in his own skin.
"When I was a teenager, that's what I thought I was going to do was win the Daytona 500," Martin said as he prepared for Sunday's Daytona 500 with a new ride at Michael Waltrip Racing. "And now it ain't happened. It hasn't stopped me from trying. It doesn't bother me at all -- none. Why should it? ... If I won it and for some reason didn't get the trophy then that would bother me, but I didn't win it yet so why should it bother me?"
Martin arrived in NASCAR in 1981 as the youngest driver ever to win the American Speed Association (ASA) national championship. In fact, he won it three years in a row from 1978-80. But he failed in his first attempt at NASCAR's premier division. He was out of a full-time ride by 1983 and returned to ASA to rebuild his career. He would eventually return to NASCAR with team owner Jack Roush in 1987 in what is now the Nationwide Series with a full-time return to Cup in 1988.
Since that time, Martin has become one of NASCAR's best drivers, winning 40 career races. But the prestigious victories still elude him.
There are those who judge a NASCAR driver not only on his victories, but where those victories occurred. A driver can rack up wins at Michigan, Pocono, Martinsville and Kansas and be content in knowing they were the best at winning on what race drivers call "Racer's Racetracks," tracks where driver skill combined with hitting the right combination on the race car often leads to success. The two restrictor-plate tracks on the schedule -- Daytona and Talladega -- are far different. At those tracks luck and circumstance often determine a driver's ability to succeed.
Martin's fellow drivers believe, even without those victories, his body of work speaks for itself.
"I think Mark Martin is a champion of the sport, whether he's got the trophy or not," Carl Edwards said. "He gives his best every week and that's all you can do. The fun part about this sport is just going out and doing the very best you can. If you win, it's a great feeling. I was close enough to know to at least get a taste of how great this race [Daytona] would feel to win and be able to be right there and have a shot at it and then get to talk to Trevor Bayne a lot about it. It would be an amazing race to win."
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon also thinks Martin's failure at Daytona is but a footnote to his illustrious career.
"There's no way that he's going to be judged by that and he's been close," Gordon said. "I think it's more of a personal thing to him and if he won it, I think he would be overjoyed and overwhelmed and elated just because to him, it's like there's this something holding him back from getting that victory in Daytona, but I think he's just as capable of doing it as anybody."
Martin's best shot at Daytona came in 2007 when he was in the lead just a few hundred yards from the checkered flag. With a massive crash just behind him, NASCAR officials did not hit the caution light, choosing to let Martin and Kevin Harvick battle it out to the checkered flag. Harvick's Chevrolet was able to nudge just a few inches in front of Martin's front bumper to deny the Old Warrior his chance at Daytona glory.
The wrinkles on Martin's face are an indicator that time has marched on since he was the fresh-face young man that arrived at Daytona in 1982 full of optimism, hope and dreams. And three decades later without a Cup title or a Daytona 500 victory, Martin has no regrets.
"Nobody ever told me that I was going to be the greatest of all time," Martin admitted. "I figure that I'm darn lucky to have been able to participate in this sport and stumble around and win a few things. I'm not owed anything. You earn what you get. I have not lost one ounce of sleep over not winning it other than the disappointment of being within three feet of it in '07.
"I had to stop short ... when I was telling you that I hadn't lost any sleep over it. To be real honest, that's not accurate. I did lose a little bit over coming within three feet of it. You don't get to choose which races you win -- if you're lucky you just get to win some. I figured that I got lucky and I got to win some. I don't get to choose which ones they are."
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart headlines the list of big-name drivers yet to hit Victory Lane at Daytona, but he keeps that missing accomplishment in proper perspective.
"I wouldn't trade three championships to win Daytona," Stewart said. "It's not a good feeling to not have that tally in the win column. ... It's the biggest race of the year; everyone wants to win that race. I won't say that it is not a complete career if you don't win it, but there is a lot of priority on this. Darrell Waltrip and Dale [Earnhardt] both had to go a long time before they got it.
"But it's very high on my list -- especially these next two weeks, it is the highest thing on it."
Martin will go out on Sunday and attempt to win the Daytona 500, but if he doesn't win it, that's OK because Martin is man secure with what he has accomplished in his career.
Even without a Daytona 500 victory, Martin's résumé is more than complete.