SECOND WIND: Runner-up finish helps fuel Martin's No. 1 push Countdown to Daytona


Mark Martin knows what it's like to feel small, and it has nothing to do with his 5-foot-5 stature.

"Have you ever seen a dog being kicked?" he asked, his blue eyes intense and direct. "You've seen it. You kick a dog and he comes circling back, his head down, his tail between his legs. Well, that's how I came back to Winston Cup racing.

"I had been kicked hard, and I came back with my head down and just slipped around to where I was supposed to be. I didn't want anyone to notice me."

That was three seasons ago, a lifetime ago it seems now.

He had tried to make it in NASCAR in the early 1980s, but in 1983 he ran just 16 events, lost his ride and realized he wasn't going to make it and left.

Head down. Psychologically beaten.

"When I first met Mark, he was very frustrated and very insecure," said car owner Jack Roush. "His self-esteem? I don't believe he had any, and I think that's been the biggest change I've seen in him these last three years. But I don't know if that affected his driving. I do know he feels better about himself and his ability to compete."

Martin no longer slinks into the garages at Daytona International Speedway. He walks in, head up, a smile close at hand. He finished last season second only to Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. And he took the title chase down to the last race of the season.

"We ran every lap of every race with my guts hanging out, because that's all we had to give," said Martin. "It wasn't enough. We had a little success, sure, but a little success is never enough. People who are competitors stay miserable all the time. I've stayed miserable, because nothing is ever enough and nothing ever will be."

He'll start Sunday's Daytona 500 looking for more, looking to be No. 1.

"Only a fool would predict fate," said Martin. "I'd feel foolish if . . . a $2 part broke or we got tangled in someone else's crash. I can't predict. But I guarantee you we'll be a better team."

A year ago, he missed winning the championship by 26 points. But the Roush team couldn't have tried harder. It lost 46 points after its Folgers Coffee Ford was declared illegal in a victory at Richmond, but still had a chance to win going into the last race at Atlanta in November.

Only six points behind Earnhardt, Roush and Martin decided to use the best car they could get their hands on, even though that car wasn't their own. The Roush team borrowed a car from Robert Yates, another Ford team.

It didn't work, a fact that Roush and Martin have been reminded of time and again. Even Ford executive Michael Kranefuss said the outcome "made them look like idiots."

"I wasn't thinking of making an error when I made that decision," said Roush. "I was just sorting out the parts I had to work with and trying to give Mark the best equipment that was available. TC hope this year our own equipment will be the best."

Martin knows how to recognize good teams. He was a winner in the Midwest on the American Speed Association circuits before he came to Winston Cup racing the first time. And after he left in 1983, he built another championship team in the ASA series.

"In 1986 I won the ASA championship and I won a lot of races," he said. "But it wasn't fulfilling. Winston Cup is the elite and when I had to leave it in 1983, it left me empty."

He says he hit an emotional low. "You probably don't go much lower than I did. But I worked at putting myself back together. For three years, I worked to get back to the top of the ASA. Then I got the chance to come back to Winston Cup."

With Roush, he has built a championship contender. This season the team returns intact. But when Martin signed up to drive for Roush, he wasn't sure how much success this team would have.

"It wasn't until the fifth race of my first season with them, when we finished second at Bristol," Martin said. "I could see it that day. I could taste it and I could almost reach up there and touch it [victory]. Until then, I didn't know if I'd make it.

"I really can't explain the success I've had. But I do believe I've outworked everyone who was out there. And I do believe that I'm a better person, a more appreciative person. I'm grateful for what I have and I don't think I would be if it had come easy."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad