He has 870 starts in NASCAR's top series and has finished runner-up a record five times in the championship standings. Yet despite his vast experience, Mark Martin is nervous as he prepares for Saturday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Martin's anxiety stems from this being his first time in the seat of the No. 14 car normally occupied by Tony Stewart. Stewart is out for the remainder of the season with a broken right leg and on Monday Martin was named as his fill-in for 12 of 13 races. (He will not compete Oct. 20 at Talladega with Austin Dillon driving instead).
"Today is going to be action-packed with a short amount of practice to get ready to race tomorrow night and to qualify all packed into one day," Martin said Friday. "I'm excited about the challenge and I'm extremely committed to do a good job for this race team, for this group, for Tony and hopefully return his car back over to him in as good or better standing then when it was turned over to me."
Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli called Martin a "homerun" hire and said he was the team's No. 1 choice because of the stability he will provide.
As Martin acclimates himself to his new team, Stewart is continuing his rehabilitation back in North Carolina. The two veterans spent some time together earlier in the week swapping stories about racing injuries and, despite being confined to his bed, Martin said Stewart was in "really good spirits."
Stewart is expected to be back behind the wheel in time for January preseason testing. In the meantime, the team bearing his name forges on without him.
"I think the team has done a really good job of keeping their cool and being up for any of the challenges," Danica Patrick said. "I never felt like the team has been disrupted by other drivers coming into the 14 car, so I feel like they are all doing a really good job. That comes with putting good people in.
"I just miss it because he is a great driver and he is the leader of this team."
In spite of Stewart being sidelined, this past week SHR has made a contract offer to Kurt Busch. If he accepts, he would join Stewart, Patrick and Kevin Harvick to form a four-car team for 2014. And on Friday, it was made known that Rodney Childers was leaving Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year to join SHR and become the crew chief for Harvick next season.
The growth of SHR is in contrast to other teams in the garage who are either downsizing or unable to expand because of a lack of sponsorship.
"We are looking to expand," Zipadelli said. "We are looking to do whatever we can to make Stewart-Haas a better place to race and give our drivers better resources. Our goal is to give our teams better product to race every week going into Daytona. With four good drivers next year I think that it gives us that opportunity.
"Our owners are aggressive. It's kind of exciting; in a time where everybody is kind of going the other way we've got owner that are committed to stepping up and hopefully making Stewart-Haas a bigger and better place in the future."