Mark Martin, 53, can make history with his next trip to Victory Lane
Mark Martin has Harry Gant clearly in his sights.
Gant has held the record for the oldest winner of a Sprint Cup race (52 years, 219 days) since Aug. 16, 1992. The 53-year-old Martin has 20 more chances this season to take it away. The way Martin is running, it could happen Sunday at Kansas.
Martin finished third in that flat-out speed contest at Texas, which ran the final 234 laps under green. It was his third top-10 in five races, after a 10th at Daytona and ninth at Phoenix. And really, he hasn't been bad anywhere, finishing 12th at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in late March and 18th at Las Vegas a week earlier.
Only a part-timer this season, Martin is 20th in the points, ahead of 14 drivers who have been in all seven races. OK, there are some start-and-parkers in there, but he's in front of drivers like Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, too.
A rejuvenated Martin was what Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman were dreaming about when they hired him for 25 races prior to this season, but in reality, nobody could have seen Martin's performance level coming.
Martin's 40 wins, classy reputation and huge fan base made him attractive to sponsor Aaron's, which announced a 30-race extension for this season and 2013 at the same November media conference announcing his arrival at MWR. The team, on the other hand, coveted Martin for his wisdom, knowledge and winning attitude, offering him the chance to become integral part of the management of the organization.
The package appealed to Martin on every front.
"They're giving me an opportunity to have an effect on the direction of the program," Martin said at the time. "I'm really excited about that because that could be a transition for me to continue to be involved in the sport the way I want to be by using the experience and things I've learned over the years in NASCAR."
Martin had driven part-time in Cup in 2007 and 2008. He had wanted the extra time off so he could help develop his son Matt's career, which was making good progress. Matt was running late models at age 16 early in 2008 when he decided to quit racing to focus on his education. After that Mark Martin decided to return to full-time racing, moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009.
Martin had a great first season with Hendrick: five wins and a second-place finish in the championship behind teammate Jimmie Johnson. But he didn't make the Chase or win in a race in 2010 and, in April of that year, Hendrick signed Kahne for the 2012 season. It made Martin a lame duck in 2011 and, accordingly, he slid to 22nd in the points.
Martin's enthusiasm for driving has never waned and the schedule that he picked has re-energized him. Fatigue from the long and demanding Cup schedule won't be a factor and taking races off will allow him to focus on the technology side of his job. It isn't a coincidence that Michael Waltrip Racing is the most improved team in Cup this season, having taken a mighty leap forward.
Martin gives Martin Truex Jr., the team's lone holdover driver, substantial credit for the upgrade the team made between 2011 and this season.
"I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown starting with Martin Truex Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season," Martin said. "Martin Truex Jr. has been phenomenal, phenomenal. The teamwork I'm feeling right now at MWR is second to none ...
"Martin Truex Jr. is really, really engaged and working hard to help the whole program. We're racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That's a tall order right now."
Martin can credit a very fast car and great driving for his third at Texas. He showed he's still got what it takes to compete at the highest level.
"I could see the leader the whole race and at times we could gain," Martin said. "When we were at our very best, we were making some gains on the leaders and when we were at our worst, we were falling back some. Most of the time, we could kind of maintain pace.
"We don't have much more work to do and we can get up there and be battling for the win. We've made improvements on our racer every race that we've run together, so [crew chief] Rodney [Childers] and I are starting to figure some things out that I like for the long haul. It's working well."
Martin won at Kansas in 2005 and has one other top-five and five top-10s in 12 races. He's was 10th there last fall.
"After today [at Texas], I'm really excited, but I was excited anyway. I love going to the racetrack. There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude. It's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to. But with the great run we've had here, we'll be able to roll the setup logic into next week's [Kansas] car. If we can make any more improvement, maybe we can get right up there and make some sparks for those guys."
Gant's record isn't the reason Martin, at age 53, keeps racing, but it would be a fitting record for him to own. It would put him into a unique and deserving place in the Sprint Cup history book.