- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

DOVER, Del. | The oldest driver in Sprint Cup happens to be the best one in the sport this season. He has won more races than Tony Stewart. He has more poles than Jimmie Johnson. He has earned more respect than any other driver in the garage and is the sentimental favorite to win his first Cup title.

At 50 years old, Mark Martin defies his age on the track. Martin may be the elder statesman, but that hasn’t stopped the gray-haired veteran from chasing the championship.

He leads the points heading into the second race of the Chase for the championship at Dover International Speedway, the concrete track where he has won four times. Keep up this pace, and he’ll finally have that elusive first championship.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Martin said.

When the green flag drops Sunday, Martin will officially make his 750th Cup start, making him only the ninth driver in history to reach that mark. He was 40 victories, 253 top-five finishes and 411 top-10s in the first 749 starts.

The one number that seems the most astounding of them all is his age. At a time in life when most athletes have long settled into cozy retirement, Martin is among the rare breed who not only actively participates but also thrives.

“Why is he still doing so good at that age? I think it has less to do with his age and more to do with the fact that he’s really hungry,” Brian Vickers said. “If he had won four championships, would he still be able to do it at 50? I think desire has more to do with it than age.”

Martin is as physically fit and dedicated to healthy eating and clean living as any other driver in the garage. Two pieces of pizza are about as unappetizing to him as a pair of DNFs in the 10-race Chase.

His lifestyle has played as much a critical part of extending a Cup career that dates to 1981 as his ride at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. He almost retired in 2005 and dubbed the season the “Salute To You” tour as a season-long thank you to his fans.

Four years later, he’s still here.

“Wouldn’t have done it if I could have seen the future, that’s for sure,” Martin said.

His next attempt at retirement will likely come with less fanfare. It also won’t come any time soon. Martin signed an extension last week to stay with Hendrick and in the No. 5 car through the 2011 season.

“It’s a little long range for my liking,” Martin said. “For planning purposes, sponsorship deals and all those things, it made sense to go ahead and make the commitment so they could plan longer term than just a year.”

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon knows Martin’s break, when he ran a partial schedule in 2007 and 2008, helped re-energize him. Gordon wonders if another season or two of the season grind will eventually affect Martin’s performance.

“We’ll see how and what all takes place two or three years from now when he has been back in the grind a little while,” Gordon said. “But I know he is having a lot of fun this year, and obviously that team is doing a great job.”

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