By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There's a irony in the position Mark Martin will start from in Sunday's Daytona 500.
For more than a quarter-century, Martin has enjoyed a great career in the Sprint Cup series. But when it comes to the biggest achievements of all, he invariably has finished second.
For example, he's finished runner-up four different times but has never won the elusive Cup championship.
He marks his 25th career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, yet has never won it, either – although he did come close two years ago, losing by a half-fender length to Kevin Harvick in one of the closest finishes in the history of the Great American Race.
Martin kicks off yet another run at both winning the season championship and at Daytona on Sunday, and he'll start in a very familiar position: second, sitting on the outside of pole-sitter and former teammate Martin Truex Jr.
But he doesn't mind. He'll still be ahead of 41 other cars when that green flag falls to start the race.
"I'm just Mr. Outside Pole," Martin laughed. "If I'm not mistaken, I sat on the outside pole six times last year and didn't get one, so I'll take that because I have sat on the back pole a few times in my career and I don't like that at all. I'll take second."
Martin, who turned 50 last month, returns to full-time competition for one more season after running only a partial schedule the past two seasons. Running for Hendrick Motorsports this season, the Batesville, Ark., native feels that if he's ever going to win the two biggest things that have eluded him in his career, he may as well run for the best.
"It's an amazing feeling," Martin said. "I feel so grateful to Rick Hendrick because that's where it all starts. What an incredible person that he is for giving me this opportunity."
And it's that reasoning that has a lot of other people thinking that Martin is in the best position he's ever been to indeed achieve those two long-frustrating goals.
"I am very motivated," Martin said. "Probably more motivated than I was in 2000 or 2005 because I don't know (how many more 500s he has left). So every time I get a chance to do this, I don't know how many more I will get."
Martin was resigned to never having another shot at winning at Daytona after coming so close in 2007. He had the lead coming off the final turn, but Harvick's car simply out-muscled Martin's down the front straight and barely hung on to take the win.
Till this day, how that race turned out haunts Martin. He never thought he'd ever have a chance to avenge that outcome, but he has perhaps the best chance of his career heading into Sunday's race.
"If you put me in a position that I was in with 20 (laps) to go in 2007, I could taste it and I was willing to wreck to win," Martin said. "I felt like I was very close there a few times. I did everything there I could possibly do."
But on the other hand, Martin tries not to reflect back too much to two years ago, to his best chance to win the 500 and how it all played out.
"I try not to think about 2007 that much," Martin said. "Probably just as much as I try not to think about some other year when things even went worse than that. Does it cross my mind coming into Daytona this year? I'm going to be driving a Hendrick Motorsports car and working with the brightest crew chief. … This might be the best car I ever had at Daytona.
"I am going to tell you right now that I am thrilled to have a fast race car, but I will take luck come Sunday. I look forward to the challenge."
That he even thought he'd have such a great opportunity, let alone be able to challenge and to be where he's at today, was the farthest thing from Martin's mind the last two years.
The most important thing to him was easing into retirement, spend time with his family, to do things he'd never been able to do during his racing career and prepare for the next chapter of his life.
"I had to have a break, I was tired, burned out and frustrated," Martin said. "I'd put every ounce that I had in to my career from the time from the time I graduated high school until the last day at Homestead in '06 in the No. 6 car.
"I had to step back and catch my breath and let myself out from under that gun and do some things that I really wanted to do that I felt like racing was standing in the way of. And I did those. I caught my breath. It took a year or a year and a half for me to get caught up and get in the right frame of mind. Mentally right now, I am in so much better frame then I was then."
As it turns out, being away from racing was what brought him back to racing.
"After I got that and I looked around, I figured out that really racing is my life and I am in deep trouble when I can't do it any more, I have no idea what I want to do when I can't wheel one of these things any more," he said. "The No. 8 car gave me a shot to win about three times last year. I could taste the blood, I wanted it so bad.
"When I realized that I might have a chance to win some races in the No. 5 car, I am all over it. That is what I really want to do. I took the time to do the things I wanted to do and now, once again, I am doing what I really want to do and that is I want to go to the race track, drive these race cars, work with this race team and be around these people. That is what I have done since I was 15 years old and I don't know what I will do when I can't do it."
A good start – especially a win – Sunday would set Martin on the path he hopes to complete in November with the championship trophy. When he announced last fall that he was joining Hendrick Motorsports, Martin said it was for one last shot at winning the championship.
But since he's become ingrained in the Hendrick way of racing, a championship would still be nice, but it's not an all-consuming thing, either. Martin wants success and perfection, and the best place for him to do that is at HMS.
"What drove me to take this was Rick Hendrick, Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff (Gordon), Jimmie (Johnson) and Dale Barnhart Jr. as supportive teammates, Alan Gustafson and an opportunity to drive a blazing-fast race car that could win a race," Martin said. "That's why I did it. All this other stuff we'll see about that.
"You have to climb some hills before you can stand at the top of the mountain. I got hills to climb this year before we talk about standing on top of the mountain. You have to understand that in 2009 we have plenty of hills to climb before we can even discuss all that. Obviously, it would be incredible if we could just make the ‘Chase' because then we have a chance, but we have to make the ‘Chase' first. We have a lot more important things to be worried about than trying to worry about whether or not we can win that Cup."
The savvy veteran's first point of business is to win the season-opening race on Sunday.
"This is the crown jewel of stock car racing and I've had a little bit of success in it, Martin said. "Everything else that I've done in my career would fit around this. I'm a one-step-at-a-time guy, but this is definitely the best group of people and the best stuff that I've had. I'm grateful for that and as you remember in 2007, I was thankful for the opportunity. I wasn't mad because I didn't win; I was glad that I had a chance. If things go our way then maybe we'll have a chance again here Sunday.
"I can see as clear as a bell I don't know how many more chances I will have like this. So I am going to try really hard to make the most of it."