- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - Mark Martin puts in long hours in the gym and thinks the last time he ate fast food was a Burger King run some 15 years ago. He lives his life like a man half of his age. And drives like it, too.

The 50-year-old Martin became the third-oldest winner in NASCAR history Saturday night, snapping a 97-race winless streak with a dominating run at Phoenix International Raceway.

“I told the guys I don’t have any problem keeping up with a 25-year-old _ at least not for the next 15 minutes,” Martin said. “I feel really good.”

Martin, who has waffled on retirement several times in the last four years, started from the pole and led 157 of 312 laps. But a late caution erased his 4-second lead over Tony Stewart with 11 laps to go, sending the leaders into the pits and putting his victory on the line.

Ryan Newman stayed on track to assume the lead, and Martin won a frantic race off pit road to emerge in second. But he had Tony Stewart _ Newman’s car owner and teammate _ right behind him, and only six laps to race to the front.

Martin only needed about 6 seconds.

Martin shot past Newman on the restart, then drove away to his first win since Kansas in 2005.

The last 50-year-old to win a Cup race was Morgan Shepherd in 1993 at Atlanta. Harry Gant holds the record as the oldest driver to win a Cup race. He was 52 when he won at Michigan in 1992.

Before Martin, only three drivers 50 or older won Cup races: Gant, Shepherd and Bobby Allison.

“Age is irrelevant with Mark,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “I don’t even think about it. It doesn’t even come into the equation. Mark’s enthusiasm, his energy, his drive … he’s incredible. He’s as good as any of them.”

Martin was visited by NASCAR president Mike Helton and several competitors in Victory Lane, including former boss Jack Roush and former teammates Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.

It was Martin’s 36th career victory, but first without Roush. He spent 18 years driving for Roush, but left after the 2006 season because he had planned to retire at the end of that season, but Roush had filled his seat before he changed his mind.

“He seemed genuinely happy,” Martin said of Roush’s Victory Lane visit.

So did everyone else.

“There’s no shame in losing to a guy like Mark Martin,” said Stewart, who finished second. “I am really happy for Mark. Nobody works harder than Mark to be fit, to stay in shape and be ready to go.”

Busch was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Biffle.

“There’s no shame in losing to a guy like Mark Martin,” Stewart said. “I am really happy for Mark. Nobody works harder than Mark to be fit, to stay in shape and be ready to go.”

The praise poured in from every corner of the garage for Martin, who is widely considered to be the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a championship.

“The guy has been at the top of his game in the sport for 30 years,” said Busch, who raced with Martin at Roush. “He’s a tremendous athlete, a tremendous individual and he’s definitely going to put together.”

That elusive Cup title is what lured him to drive for Rick Hendrick this year for his first full season in three years. He spent the last two years in a part-time ride for Dale Earnhardt Inc., which re-energized him for another grueling 10-month season. After finishing second in the championship race a maddening four times, Hendrick offered him the No. 5 Chevrolet and likely his best _ and final _ shot at a title.

But his optimism was dashed after horrendous early season luck sabotaged strong cars and dropped Martin to 34th in the standings. His victory pushed five spots from 18th to 13th, and he’s now just nine points out of the final qualifying spot for the Chase for the championship.

He didn’t want to discuss his championship hopes afterward.

“I am not going to ruin a good time by worrying about,” he said. “Let me enjoy this.”

Martin received a congratulatory phone call in Victory Lane from Hendrick, who wasn’t on hand to see an HMS driver win for the third straight race. Johnson won at Martinsville and Jeff Gordon won at Texas.

“He just congratulated me, man,” Martin said of the phone call. “He makes dreams come true.”

Martin celebrated his win with a backward victory lap as a tribute to his late friend Alan Kulwicki.

“You guys knew I wasn’t going to do a burnout,” he joked.

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