By Jerry Bonkowski
BROOKLYN, Mich. – An old dog not only can be taught new tricks, he can also teach younger pups some valuable lessons in the process.
Such was the case for Mark Martin on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
Admittedly long in the tooth at the age of 50 and gray – and thinned – in the hair, Martin used all the experience he's gained in over 25 years of Cup racing to almost casually win the Lifelock 400.
Knowing that fuel was a precious commodity and that mileage would likely determine the outcome, Martin was savvy and smart. He let Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle have at it, one essentially pushing the other to drive harder and faster as the closing laps wound down.
But in so doing, Johnson and Biffle also used more gas collectively, to the point where both ran out of fuel far short of the finish line.
And while the duo pounded their fists on their steering wheels in frustration when their tanks both went dry short of the finish line, Martin casually drove by, likely saying, "Thank 'ya, boys," en route to the checkered flag.
The irony of it is that Martin also ran out of gas on the last lap, but had enough of a time cushion – and had saved more gas in the process of watching Johnson and Biffle battle it out – that he had enough to coast all the way to the finish line. He couldn't have timed the outcome any better.
"Old man, you snookered us again," said race runner-up Jeff Gordon, Martin's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "I can say that because I just love this guy. He's older than me and he's just a darn good race car driver and a smart race car driver."
Snookered is indeed the perfect word. Martin knew he wasn't going to be able to run with Biffle and Johnson. He also knew that there was a chance one or both may very well have enough fuel to make it.
"He's focused, like a computer," team owner Rick Hendrick said of Martin, who he lured out of partial retirement to run full-time schedules both this season and next. "He adds to much to the organization. It radiates through the organization."
So instead of running with the big dogs at the time, Martin the old dog ran his own race. He was content with what appeared to be a likely third-place finish.
And if Biffle or Johnson ran out of gas, any position higher than third-place would be a bonus. A little bit of patience wound up giving Martin that bonus.
Martin is now tied with Kyle Busch for most wins among drivers this season, each having three triumphs. The only other multiple winners this season are three-time defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, each with two wins apiece.
Sunday's win also helped Martin make a big step upwards in the standings, jumping from 13th to 8th, one position ahead of the younger Busch brother.
"This was real cool," Martin said. "Everyone knows we've had some horrendous luck this year and it put us way back."
Martin seemed semi-shocked to be on the victory podium, given his past success – or more precisely, the lack thereof – in fuel mileage races.
"I always come up short on gas mileage things," Martin said. "I've probably lost 25 and won 2.
"Usually, (fuel mileage races) are not very exciting and don't make a good show. Here we have two guys wrestling to win and then you have a surprise winner."
Martin admittedly was hampered somewhat during the race. Most of the fans in his car, including those that cool his brakes, as well as fans that keep his head and body cool from the high in-car temperatures, were on the fritz and eventually failed.
He was also having trouble with the two batteries in his Chevrolet Impala, forced to continually switch back and forth to keep enough power flowing throughout his car's electrical system.
"The car did a lot of work and I only did some of the work," Martin said. "It all played in my hands today."
Martin is on pace to win seven races this year, which would equal the most he's won in a season, back in 1998, when he finished runner-up to Gordon for the championship.
"If I don't win another race again this year, we still have had a great year," Martin said.
Gordon begs to differ with that. He thinks Martin still has a lot of tread left on his paws, both this season and at least another one or two more seasons to come.
"Mark is just a fantastic driver and still getting it done, even at 50," Gordon said. "As far as I'm concerned, you watch him out there, he could be 21 years old. You can't tell (Martin is 50). He's just fantastic, in great shape, just throwing the car sideways if he needs to, just driving the wheels off it.
"He's like a 21-year-old, but with a lot of experience under his belt – and that's tough to beat."
Something tells me Martin the old dog would wag his tail in appreciation and bark his approval. There are no silly pet or human tricks with him, but he sure still has a heck of a bite left -- and Sunday proved it once again.