JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Mark Martin is proving age is nothing but a number.

Or in his case a few numbers.

The 50-year-old Martin has four victories this season, more than any driver in Sprint Cup.

His win Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway bumped him to 11th in the points standings. Though he still insists he’s driving for fun and for wins, and not points, Martin is a legitimate contender to stay in the top 12 and compete for the Chase for the championship over the season’s final 10 races.

The number that does not define him is 0.

As in, no Cup titles over a career that dates to 1981.

Martin is in the thick of the hunt this year for winning that first championship that would stamp the only missing line on a resume that screams Hall of Fame. Martin is hounded by questions about what finally winning the title would mean to him, but NASCAR’s senior statesman is not haunted by the thought of ending his career without one.

“I absolutely don’t care,” Martin said. “Let me tell you something, what difference would it make if I had a championship trophy? I don’t see anybody win a championship and quit. Not in this sport. Would anyone respect me more? I would think that’s more important than a trophy. Respect.”

Martin has earned as much respect as any driver in the garage. Known for his tireless work ethic, trademark consistency and his role as a mentor, Martin is one of the most admired drivers in NASCAR.

“There’s no way you should define this guy by what he hasn’t done,” said Alan Gustafson, Martin’s crew chief with Hendrick Motorsports. “What he has done is incredible.”

While Martin has publicly diffused the title talk, Gustafson knows how much a championship would mean to his childhood role model.

“I think he wants to win it worse than anybody out here,” Gustafson said. “He’s just doing the best thing for the team in this situation by trying to avoid it. It becomes such a big topic because he is the best driver in this series — ever — not to win a championship.”

He’s had his opportunities before this golden year. Martin was series runner-up an agonizing four times, the last in 2002 when he lost out to Tony Stewart. Martin ran for Jack Roush then and was seemingly driving toward the end of his career. He strongly considered retirement at the end of the 2005 season, but was swayed into one final season with Roush Fenway Racing. Two more seasons on a part-time schedule sapped Martin of some of his enthusiasm for the sport he loves.

He has rediscovered it in bundles at Hendrick. Driving the No. 5 car for the sport’s most powerful team, Martin’s four wins in 2009 are as many as he recorded the rest of the decade.

Owner Rick Hendrick was spurned in his initial efforts to add Martin to a roster that already included champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Martin said no “multiple times” until he was finally persuaded to join NASCAR’s most loaded team.

“I was not really, really happy,” Martin said. “Not the kind of happy you want to be. I was burned out and I kind of took a little bit of it for granted because I had done it so long. I didn’t realize that there wasn’t anything else in the world that I would rather be doing. I took two years to catch my breath and I saw that.”

Gustafson, finally earning praise for his work at Hendrick, grew up a die-hard fan of Martin. He hung pictures of Martin in his room, then admired him from afar when he broke into NASCAR. It’s Martin’s fierce, determined, no-excuses attitude that Gustafson admired as a kid and awes him even more while working together on a daily basis.

“I don’t know if me growing up and being a big fan has contributed to me trying to impersonate him or what, but the way we race, and our attitude about it are very similar,” Gustafson said.

If the Chase began this week, Martin would be the top seed because of his four victories. Three finishes of 40 or worse, however, have him perilously close to missing out on the Chase. Matt Kenseth trails Martin by only one point, and Greg Biffle is 10 points shy of cracking the top 12, setting up seven frantic, crucial races before the Chase field is set.

Martin and Gustafson both believe they can qualify for the Chase and win it all.

Martin insisted his attitude toward the title hasn’t changed. He still feels like he’s on the outside of the top 12 and trying to fight his way in, instead of being on the brink of championship contention.

Martin can’t see the logic in why some drivers would take a winless season in exchange for hoisting the trophy in the finale. Some, like Carl Edwards, believe it’s all about etching your name on the list of Cup winners. Martin loves the checkered flags, the parade of well-wishers who rush up to him in Victory Lane, and the morale boost victories give an organization.

“I’ve had a better career than some guys that have won championships,” Martin said. “Would I trade one win for a championship? Not right now. Would I trade these (four) wins to be sitting comfortably in the Chase? Not right now.”

Gustafson sees a rejuvenated, dedicated Martin who maintains his strict diet and does all the right things on and off the track.

Well, except for when the Coca-Cola 600 was postponed by rain and Gustafson finally enticed Martin to eat a slice of pizza.

“That was probably the worst thing I’ve even seen him eat,” Gustafson said, laughing. “A whole slice. That was him stepping out of the box.”

The age-old question remains: How much longer does Martin plan to keep driving?

Martin tired of answering the retirement questions in his final years at Roush, when the sole focus of “can he win one?” took away from his performance on the track. Martin said he loves his crew, his car, and his owner so much that he won’t worry about his future. Martin is in the first year of a two-year deal with Hendrick, and will ride all 36 races next season after originally settling on a partial schedule.

“I think he can go until he doesn’t want to go anymore,” Gustafson said. “He’s as good as anybody on the racetrack. As long as he’s got that motivation to be at the top level, he can do it.”

Martin has the motivation to be the best.

Whether he states it or not, that includes winning the Sprint Cup championship.

This might finally be his year — just as long as he can hang on make the Chase.

“Maybe we can do it all yet,” Martin said.

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