DOVER, Del. -- Looking at Mark Martin, you have to wonder how he can manhandle a 3,200-pound stock car during a five-hour race at any track, let alone the high-banked oval at Dover International Speedway.
Martin is tiny. He says he is 5 feet 6 and weighs 140 pounds, but he looks even smaller sitting across a dinner table behind a plate of grilled tuna.
He is talking about how hard it is to be in Winston Cup stock car racing, about how other teams try to buy away your best pit crewmen and your crew chief.
"The fun is long gone out of this thing," he says of his racing career. "The only thing that's fun any more is winning and, outside of that, there is a lot of stress, a lot of tension, a lot of pressure to perform.
"When you're running good, you don't worry too much about it, but as soon as you get into a little slump, which everybody does, you start worrying about holding on to your stuff -- to your sponsors, to your crew, your team, your job.
"It gets hard."
Martin, who is second in the Winston Cup Championship points race -- just 80 points behind Dale Earnhardt -- will start in the 13th position in tomorrow's Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Dover, and knows better than most how worrisome it can get. He's been fired. From 1984 through 1987, he couldn't get a job in Winston Cup racing.
But in 1988, he joined up with car owner Jack Roush and that turned out to be the key to Martin's success. Finding his way into a gym was a close second.
The workouts relieved the tension, and he also discovered that they increased his stamina and endurance.
"Racing is a lot more physically demanding than some people realize, and more mentally demanding than others may realize," he said. "And almost no one realizes the physical demand it puts on you because they think it's like driving the family car to the grocery store.
"They don't comprehend what it's like to drive the car on the edge and beyond the edge of control around these race tracks."
And so, Martin searches out gyms that open by 6 a.m. in every town the Winston Cup tour visits. Not pretty health clubs, but plain old-fashioned gyms that feature free weights. He can bench-press 225 pounds without a spotter, and he leg-presses from 500 to 600 pounds in repetitions of 10.
And he watches his diet.
"I was going to the gym, working out an hour and a half five days a week, and I decided I didn't want to strain my guts out every day like that if I wasn't going to get the full benefit," Martin said. "So I started looking into nutrition.
"Not only do I look better and feel better, but I'll live a whole lot longer. I plan to live a long time. My grandfather is 91 -- and he never worked out. I plan to live into the 100s. . . . I have plans."
He certainly has immediate plans.
In his eighth year with Roush, Martin still is seeking his first Winston Cup championship. He has come close before, finishing second in 1990 and third in 1989 and 1993, when he became only the sixth driver in NASCAR's modern era to win four straight races in a year.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is the first year of my career," he said. "The rest was an apprenticeship."
For the first time, he has the same crew back for a second year. Though he is driving a Ford, which is considered a handicap this season against the newly designed Chevrolets, Martin's Valvoline crew has made his the best Ford.
Martin leads the Winston Cup circuit with nine top-10 finishes in 11 races. He was the first Ford driver to win a pole position (Bristol) and the first Ford driver to win a race (the Winston Select 500 at Talladega).
"I've got the best chance I've ever had to win this title," he said. "And if there is anyone out there who believes they can win, it's me."
1. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 153.669 mph (track record; previous record: Geoff Bodine, 152.840, Sept. 16, 1994); 2. Ward Burton, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 152.588; 3. Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 151.995; 4. John Andretti, Ford Thunderbird, 151.924; 5. Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 151.758; 6. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 151.579; 7. Ricky Craven, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 151.197; 8. Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 151.153; 9. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, 151.076; 10. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 151.026;
11. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 150.937; 12. Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix, 150.880; 13. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird, 150.590; 14. Bobby Hamilton, Pontiac Grand Prix, 150.584; 15. Morgan Shepherd, Thunderbird, 150.539; 16. Rusty Wallace, Thunderbird, 150.458; 17. Rick Mast, Thunderbird, 150.332; 18. Dale Jarrett, Thunderbird, 150.169; 19. Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 150.131; 20. Bill Elliott, Thunderbird, 150.081.
Failed to qualify
21. Dick Trickle, Thunderbird, 150.063; 22. Dave Marcis, fTC Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 149.900; 23. Elton Sawyer, Thunderbird, 149.589; 24. Bobby Hillin, Thunderbird, 149.471; 25. Ricky Rudd, Thunderbird, 149.396; 26. Chuck Bown, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 149.297; 27. Mike Wallace, Thunderbird, 149.291; 28. Ted Musgrave, Thunderbird, 149.192; 29. Robert Pressley, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 149.180; 30. Kenny Wallace, Thunderbird, 149.124;
31. Steve Grissom, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 149.112; 32. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 149.007; 33. Jeremy Mayfield, Thunderbird, 148.982; 34. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 35. Randy LaJoie, Pontiac Grand Prix, 148.828; 36. Jeff Burton, Thunderbird, 148.773; 37. Greg Sacks, Pontiac, 148.662; Lake Speed, Thunderbird, 148.466; 39. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 147.535; 40. Derrike Cope, Thunderbird, 147.143;
41. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 146.651; 42. Todd Bodine, Thunderbird, 146.407; 43. Doug French, Chevrolet, 139.611.
MGD 500 WEEKEND
Site: Dover Downs International Raceway, Dover, Del.
Today: Winston Cup practice, 9:30-11 a.m.; Winston Cup qualifying, 11:30 a.m.; GM Goodwrench/Delco Battery 200, 1:10 p.m.
Tomorrow: Miller Genuine Draft 500 Winston Cup race, noon
-! TV/Radio: TNN/WXCY (103.7 FM)