Mark Martin stood on his car, waving to the cheering Phoenix International Raceway crowd. As he stepped down, his new boss, Michael Waltrip, approached and wrapped his arms around Martin, both smiling after the 53-year-old Martin had laid down a blistering qualifying lap of 136.815 mph in his Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55 Toyota.
"Having a driver for an owner, someone that I respect and look up to ... It's just incredible the opportunity they're giving me," Martin said.
So far, there have been plenty of reasons for Martin and Waltrip to celebrate in their short union.
Martin is currently seventh in the Sprint Cup points after two races, finishing 10th at Daytona and ninth at Phoenix, where he also earned his 52nd career pole, which is eighth-most in series history. He has been one of the biggest surprises of the opening weeks, outperforming both MWR's other offseason addition, Clint Bowyer, who's 17th, and the driver who Martin gave way to when he left Hendrick Motorsports after last season, Kasey Kahne (32nd).
Not bad for a guy who's taking a step back in this, his 30th year in Cup.
Martin signed a two-year deal with MWR in November and is running 24 of the 36 points races in 2012, plus the All-Star Race, while Waltrip will take over for five events. Five of the remaining seven races were expected to go to Elliott Sadler, but that deal blew up shortly after it was announced last week, and MWR has yet to name a replacement for the races Martin will miss, starting with the March 18 stop at Bristol.
Despite Martin's sizzling start, and what remains an open seat in Waltrip's car, don't expect any change of plans. But are they making a mistake? Should Martin, who is widely considered the best driver without a title, be pushing to keep going as long as he remains in contention? Should Waltrip, as the owner of a second-tier team that's trying to make the leap to a front-line organization, want his best option behind the wheel for the entire season?
Waltrip said via text message that there is no chance Martin's schedule will be expanded, and Martin himself, when asked on Twitter if he'd rather be driving full time, replied, "I love my schedule. Got to pick it myself."
We've been here before with Martin.
In 2007 he was semi-retired and running a partial schedule for Ginn Racing, and after four races, he was in the points lead. Hot start or no, there was no hesitation as Martin stuck to his word and gave way to Regan Smith for three of the next five events and 11 overall, ending the season 27th in the standings.
"In '07, when we were leading the points ... everybody just like flipped out," Martin recently recounted. "[People said,] 'Don't you want to keep going?'
"I wanted to win the championship when I wanted to win it -- when I was young. At that point [in 2007], I'd already made peace with that. It was not on my agenda."
Back in that part-time role and back to proving he's still an ageless wonder -- seven current Cup regulars were born after he made his series debut on Jan. 11, 1981 -- Martin doesn't have it on his agenda now, either.
Two weeks from now, he will be out of the No. 55 at Bristol and he'll also be watching from the sidelines at Martinsville on April 1. Who will be in his seat remains to be seen. It could be Brian Vickers, it could be Waltrip himself or it could be someone else entirely, but it won't be Martin.
There will be no change of heart, no last-ditch run at that elusive title.
The future Hall of Famer simply seems content. He's at an organization where he's racing on his own terms, and where he's helping to lay the foundation for the future. He's also discovered a new obsession since joining the MWR fold.
Waltrip opened the @55markmartin account for his driver on Jan. 23 and Martin has already cleared 1,700 tweets and has 55,000 followers and counting. Martin has used it to discuss racing and bodybuilding with fans and also divulged this little nugget: the quinquagenarian's favorite artist is rapper Gucci Mane. No, really.
At this point, should anything about Martin surprise us?
Separation Coming In Allmendinger Vs. Kurt Busch?
It was one of the more intriguing preseason questions: can A.J. Allmendinger outrun Kurt Busch? So far, it's been too hard to get a sense of who got the better end of the Great Penske Switch.
Allmendinger, who was hired this winter to slip into the No. 22 is 25th in the standings. Dodge's previous driver, Busch, is just one spot and one point behind Allmendinger in his Phoenix Racing No. 51. Both floundered at Daytona and bounced back with respectable runs in Week 2 at Phoenix.
With each looking for a leg up in this duel, Las Vegas could prove a chance for separation, and an interesting study in their new homes.
Allmendinger has steadily improved in each of his three Cup starts in Vegas, running as high as fifth last March before finishing 19th. The first intermediate track on the schedule, it may be our best indication of whether Allmendinger can build on that progress he was showing at Richard Petty Motorsports.
While Busch boasts a 6.7 average starting spot there, it's also one of the Vegas native's worst overall tracks with a 20.7 average finish, including just one top-10 in his last six races. Can he break through in front of the hometown crowd? Busch has said Phoenix Racing has made driving fun again, but a subpar finish, especially on this track, could be a test of the longevity of that New-Kurt disposition.
Las Vegas Pick
Carl Edwards. A victim of the new EFI package at Phoenix -- he looked headed for a second straight top-10 before he ran out of gas on the last lap and wound up 17th -- Edwards could be in for a quick rebound at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He boasts three top-10s in the last five trips, and no driver has a better average finish on the track than Edwards' 7.4. Look for him to continue that hot hand and put the No. 99 in Victory Lane in his first win since last March's trip to Vegas.