MIAMI – The clean-shaven man with short-cropped white-and-gray hair and facial lines that conjure images of a World War II general turned around and looked at the poster-size picture of a young NASCAR driver.

Thick mustache. Brown mop-shaped hair, reminiscent of the style worn by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The 45-year-old Mark Martin chuckled as he saw the picture, used Wednesday as a backdrop for TV cameras shooting interviews for “Mark Martin Day” in Daytona Beach and Volusia County.

“I was 23 then – 1982,” said Martin, who, for the past decade, has lived a short drive from Daytona International Speedway. “That’s why the honor given to me today means more than I can describe.

“I was starved for NASCAR racing, coming from Arkansas. I remember the first time I went to Charlotte N.C., they talked about racing on the radio. I said, “This is heaven. I’ve gone to heaven.’ They didn’t have that in Arkansas growing up. I was really, truly a real gullible greenhorn.”

Twenty-three years later, he has amassed a NASCAR career that few have surpassed: 34 Cup victories, a record 45 Busch Series victories, four Cup championship runner-up finishes and four Cup championship third-place finishes.

While Martin has come to grips that he could end his illustrious Cup career without the coveted championship, it doesn’t mean he’s willing to fade into the sunset.

He captured Nextel Cup’s 2005 All-Star race, and although he has yet to find Victory Lane in a points race this season, he is right in the thick of the race to make the Chase. He’s fifth, 328 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

This weekend, he tries to drive the “Batmobile” to Victory Lane in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway. He loves that track: In 38 starts, he has 25 top 10 finishes and four victories (although none since 1998).

Holy Horsepower, Batman.

Martin finished second in the fall Michigan race last year, with his No. 6 Ford sporting the Batman Justice League paint scheme. This time, his car will feature the Batman Begins movie paint scheme.

The Caped Crusader – for a race, anyway – joked he’s not worried about his cape hindering his driving: “As long as it doesn’t get up in my eyes, I’ll be fine.”

Humble start

But Martin began his career more like “Underdog.” The Martin of the 1982 photo was in his first full season in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, and he was his own car owner. It was a far cry from his situation now, driving for the juggernaut Roush Racing team that has won seven races this season and the past two championships. Last week, teammate and first-year Cup driver Carl Edwards, won at Pocono. Martin was thrilled for him.

Times are different.

“In 1982, if I drove legendary owner Junior Johnson’s car, I would have won Pocono,” Martin said.

But no young drivers had great equipment when they started in those days. “You couldn’t get a good car until you served your dues – about 10 years.”

Just think what Martin’s career numbers might have been if he got an elite ride at 23. He struggled through five tough seasons before he landed a ride with Jack Roush when he was nearly 30.

“And,” Martin said, “when I got in a Jack Roush car, it was not that hot of a car in 1988.”

But don’t think the gullible greenhorn is bitter. On the contrary, Martin is so thankful for his career that his farewell tour from Cup this season is called “Salute to You” to thank the people who have helped him along his journey.

DELIGHTING FANS

In 90-degree heat, about 300 fans showed up for Mark Martin Day. He told them so far there is no replacement driver for his No. 6 Ford. He also said he wasn’t retiring from racing, just Nextel Cup, drawing a cheer from the fans.

Martin plans to compete full time in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and race in the Nextel Cup Bud Shootout and defend his All-Star victory.

But when a fan asked, “When you win the championship, will you come back and defend the title?” Martin was adamant that he would not.

“You know that I’m not a guy who likes to commit practical jokes or anything like that, but I would really enjoy messing everybody up, NASCAR and Nextel, by winning their championship and not coming back,” he said, grinning. “That would be the coolest thing.”



(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

NASCAR

AP-NY-06-16-05 2000EDT


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