Some of the most talented drivers and teams in Winston Cup history have failed to do what Mark Martin will try to do tonight under the lights at Richmond International Raceway. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Bill Elliott, who can count 12 Winston Cup titles among them, have won four straight, but none could make it five.
In fact, no one has won five consecutive races since the Winston Cup circuit was reduced to 30 races in 1972.
"It's not impossible to win five or six in a row, when everything is falling your way," said Richard Childress, who owns the Earnhardt team and remembers its run in 1987. "We were hot. We won a total of 11 races that season. But the odds got us. When we were winning those four in a row, we weren't doing anything different from what we had been doing."
But they didn't win the fifth one.
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Mark Whiten tied the major-league record for home runs in a game with four this week. But he didn't hit five. No one has.
"Winning the fifth is just like Whiten's hitting the ball," said Childress. "Sooner or later, you're going to miss one. It's just the way the odds are. But I think Mark has a chance to win five, because I think the only pressure he's feeling is the same pressure he puts on himself to win every week."
In fact, Junior Johnson, the car owner who fielded the drive-for-five efforts of Yarborough, Waltrip and Elliott, believes Martin has a better chance of winning his fifth race tonight in the Miller Genuine Draft 400 than any of the other four-peaters did when they tried, because everyone else's success was based on a car advantage.
"I think Mark Martin is 75 percent of the reason that team is winning," Johnson said. "I think that's unusual. The car is usually what makes the difference. But in his case, he has simply made up his mind to be mentally and physically focused and he has no intention of giving up."
And that is what Johnson believes will carry Martin -- who drew the 10th starting position -- through the traffic jam at Richmond.
"Other drivers won't be so willing to move over for him [tonight]," Johnson said. "He is going to stick the nose of his Ford in a hole where a week ago people were willing to let him in and find the hole closed up. He is going to find himself bogged down in traffic a lot and that will keep Earnhardt and some of the other boys all over his back. He won't be pulling away like he did at Darlington and some other places. After you win four in a row, other drivers quit being gracious.
"But I think Mark is in a very good position to win it. In fact, I think his chances are excellent."
Johnson sees a distinct difference between Elliott's four-race victory streak last season and Martin's. A year ago, Johnson and Elliott had discovered -- even before the first race of the season at Daytona -- the traction advantage of running with a three-degree tilt on the rear axle. It was what made them dominant, as they beat every other team through the turns.
But by the time they pulled into Bristol, Tenn., for the Food City 500 and their shot at winning No. 5, NASCAR, the sanctioning body that likes to keep the competition balanced, had figured it out and ruled that no team could have more than a 1 1/4 -degree rear camber (tilt).
"The car had been our advantage and when we went to Bristol we no longer had any advantage," Johnson said. "With Martin it is totally different. His car is working well, that's true enough. But the advantage that team has is Mark Martin's spirit. I think his daily routine is testimony to it."
The routine Johnson refers to is Martin's commitment to getting up at 5:30 a.m. daily, no matter where he is, to seek out gyms in such places as Florence, S.C., Loudon, N.H., and Talladega, Ala. Once found, he works out from 50 to 90 minutes five days a week.
"Exercise is a given," Martin said. "I'm in the gym by 6 a.m. I've been going to the gym since January 1988. I know the benefits of going. I know those benefits will last forever. It does take a lot of commitment and if it helps keep my mind clear and sharp, that's one of the benefits. But the winning streak has nothing to do with it."
Yet, if Johnson is right, the exercise may have a great deal to do with the winning streak. Or perhaps it is just Martin's resolve. Like Harry Gant, who went for five straight in 1990, all Martin cares about is winning the next race.
"I wasn't out to set records or tie records," said Gant, 53, as he recalled his streak, which ended when after leading 350 of the 400 laps at North Wilkesboro his brakes went out and forced him to settle for second.
"I approached each week as if we hadn't won the week before. All I wanted to do was win the next race. I think Mark's like that. He's a racer. The streak to him isn't the big deal. Winning is the big deal. It's always the biggest deal, no matter how many times you do it."
Still, to win five straight, that might be one of the biggest deals Martin ever consummates.
THE DRIVE FOR FIVE
Five men before Mark Martin won four straight NASCAR races. Here is where their streaks ended:
Year .. .. Driver .. .. .. .. Race .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Place
1976 .. Cale Yarborough .. National 500, Charlotte, N.C. .. .. .. 2nd
1981 .. Darrell Waltrip .. Atlanta Journal 500, Atlanta .. .. .. 2nd
1987 .. Dale Earnhardt .. Winston 500, Talladega, Ala. .. .. .. 4th
1991 .. Harry Gant .. Holly Farms 400, North Wilkesboro, N.C. 2nd
1992 .. Bill Elliott .. Food City 500, Bristol, Tenn. .. .. .. .. 20th