Martin hoping for checkered future

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   NASCAR veteran Mark Martin knows all about having a checkered past with 32 Winston Cup wins, the most Busch Series wins of anyone (45), four IROC titles and four American Speed Association titles.
   These days, the Batesville, Ark. native is more interested in a checkered future, with his last Winston Cup win coming almost two years ago at Martinsville, Va.
   "I don't know if we can return to the winner's circle in the next couple of weeks," said Martin on Wednesday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "But, that is always the goal. We certainly have turned the corner here and see light at the end of the tunnel.
   "I really like my team and the guys that I'm working with. We're working on it. I like this race track and I've had a lot of good fortune here."
   As he alluded to, Bristol is a welcome site for Martin. He won the pole position for last year's Food City 500 and is a former track qualifying record holder. He owns two BMS wins in the night race and also won twice while in the Busch Series.
   Different this season for the NASCAR veteran is working with crew chief Ben Leslie, who switched places within the Jack Roush Racing organization with Jimmy Fenning. Fenning, a longtime co-worker and friend of Martin's, moved over to the No. 97 car of driver Kurt Busch.
   "It was a difficult decision," said Martin. "But, we needed to look at the people that we had and to figure out how to align all the people to make this as strong as it could possibly be. I think that we did that, so we're all doing better."
   Over his career, Martin has accomplished more than most drivers dream of. From 1989 to 2000, Mark put together an incredible string of 12 straight top ten finishes in the NASCAR standings. Over this time, crew chiefs changed, sponsors changed from Stroh's to Folger's to Valvoline, and others on the team changed, but Martin was the constant.
   Asked if he takes the time to reflect, Martin smiled: "Briefly, very briefly. I'm very proud of the career that I've had and the success that I've had. I've had wonderful opportunities to work with people and it's really been a dream come true for a kid from Arkansas. It's all that I've ever dreamed."
   Things weren't always so peachy for Martin. Despite finishing second in the 1982 NASCAR Rookie of the Year standings, his career went on a downward spiral before his fourth ASA title in 1986. Just three years after the ASA championship, Martin was at the top of the stock car racing world winning the prestigious NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) Driver of the Year Award in 1989.
   He certainly doesn't want this part of career to end on a downswing, and is optimistic his team will continue to progress.
   "I think that we will get better with time," said the Daytona Beach resident. "More work together and more time together and we will get stronger. We've got the lineup of the best drivers in Winston Cup racing at Roush Racing. We've got some good sponsors and good people working here. It's starting to show."
   Mark has more than a casual interest in the welfare of one of his teammates. He is part owner with Roush in the No. 17 Dewalt Ford team that Matt Kenseth drives.
   When asked what he saw in Kenseth that attracted him to Mark, he replied: "I've been around racing a long time and I think I know what I'm talking about. I can't answer the question, other than I know a little bit about racing."
   That may be the biggest understatement a driver says all season, for Martin has been and remains to be one of the top drivers on the tour.
   A third-place showing at Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago proved he is still capable of getting the job done. He's off to a great start to the 2002 season, where he once again is in familiar territory in the top ten of the standings. It makes one wonder if Mark Martin's checkered future might hold an elusive Winston Cup title.