When Mark Martin got the opportunity to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing full time this season, he and wife Arlene had a couple of heart-to-heart talks.

“She and I were both apprehensive about coming back full-time because I’d been so happy in ’07 and ’08 doing what I was doing,” said Martin, who ran partial Cup schedules those years while spending more time with his family. “I didn’t have any idea it could be like this. I’m really, really, really having fun.”

And the 50-year-old should be.

Competing against drivers mostly in their 20s and 30s, the graybeard of the Cup series is eighth in the standings after 15 races and on track to qualifying for the 12-man Chase for the championship and a chance to win his first title after finishing second four times.

Martin already has three wins this season, including last Sunday’s victory at Michigan, where he outlasted everyone – barely – in a fuel-mileage race.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, winner of the last three Cup championships, ran out of gas while leading with two laps to go. Greg Biffle’s tank went dry at the start of the final lap. And Martin ran out of gas coming off the fourth turn, but had enough to coast across the finish line for the 38th victory of his cup career.

“I haven’t won many of them like that,” Martin said. “I’ve lost a bunch of ’em, but I usually lose those gas things.”

Despite the success, this season hasn’t been all positive. Martin and his No. 5 Chevrolet team could have been even higher in the standings, with perhaps another win or two, if it hadn’t been for some bad luck.

He had engines fail at both California and Las Vegas early in the season, and was caught up in one of the big crashes at Talladega, accounting for three finishes of 40th or worse.

But those problems have been offset by eight top-10 finishes, including those three wins.

Still, the ever-pessimistic Martin worries – about everything.

After qualifying a disappointing 32nd at Michigan, Martin said he sat in his motorcoach at the track wondering if owner Rick Hendrick was thinking about firing him.

Hendrick, enjoying the afterglow of Martin’s latest victory, turned to his newest driver and said, “Tell them what you called and told me Friday.”

“You know, he thinks I’m full of it,” said Martin, who is signed through next season. “I didn’t think I was going to get fired right now, but if I keep qualifying 32nd every week, he needs to fire me. Everybody can act like that’s stupid, but it isn’t really stupid. I’m serious. If I can’t do better than that in the stuff that they’re giving me, they’re going to need to get somebody else.”

On Saturday, Martin was fastest in the final practice. And Sunday he stayed with the leaders until things fell his way at the end.

“It’s great,” Martin said. “I love the sport. I don’t know what in the world I’ll do when I can’t do this anymore, but that’s a long way out there.”

Hendrick, who also fields Cup cars for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., said Martin has been a revelation to the whole team.

“There’s a word in the sport: respect,” Hendrick said. “I’ve worked with a lot of drivers and been around a lot of drivers. Mark’s probably as good as I’ve ever seen on a chassis, reading the chassis, knowing what he wants, and then knowing how to run the race.

“He’s very, very focused. He’s like a computer. When he sits down with those other drivers, he starts explaining his car, they listen. I mean, that was what Jeff Gordon told me before we ever got him to come over. He said, ‘He’ll help us all.’ You know, Jimmie said that, too. After about two or three races, Junior said, ‘You need to get him to run a couple more years.’

“So it’s everything from the way you read the car, from the physical conditioning, the shape he’s in and the regimen he has. I mean, he adds so much to the entire organization.”

Martin, who spent most of his Cup career driving for Jack Roush, is just glad to have another opportunity to race in top equipment and know he has a chance to win every time the green flag flies.

“And you know how I look at it?” Martin asked. “If we don’t win another race this year, we still did good. You know, I’m not going to deal with expectations that cut my legs out from under me again ever in my career. I’m going to go out and drive the race car as hard as I can drive every time I get in it.

“I just don’t feel any pressure. I’d like to see us make the Chase because this race team deserves it and because you never know. It would be awesome. … The car’s plenty fast. We’ve just got to avoid more disasters.”

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