DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 22: Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Toyota, sits behind the team hauler in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 22, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The veteran driver talks about his new on-track philosophy, why racing is like high school and what makes him nervous.
Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Mark Martin, the ageless Michael Waltrip Racing driver who continues to be one of the Sprint Cup Series' top talents at 53 years old. Martin, despite missing three races this season, is still 23rd in points – ahead of even Jeff Gordon.
SBN: What percent of your career races can you remember?
MM: Just off the top of my head? Ten.
SBN: Just 10 percent? I thought you could remember your car setups from like 20 years ago.
MM: I can, and I can remember a lot of races – that might go to 60 percent – but just off the top of my head, there's only 10 percent of the ones that were really important. But if you say, "What about 1990 at Dover?" I can remember that and tell you I ran side-by-side with Earnhardt forever.
The instant recall, because I've raced so much, is only down in that percentage. But I do remember a lot of races, and they're different ones than people would think. It's not always the victories or great races, but really hot races or some of the wins I had that weren't Cup races.
Everybody thinks (Cup) is the biggest thing there ever is, but some of my biggest wins were things like the Arkansas State Championship in 1974. Or winning a dirt Late Model race at Bolivar, Missouri in '76. Or winning the National Short Track Championship in Rockford, Illinois in 1977. These were milestone wins, and they were Daytona 500s in my world at the time. And so I remember a lot of stuff like that.
SBN: What was your first win in any form of racing?
MM: When I first started dirt track racing, I think I won on the third night out in the 6-Cylinder division when I was 15, right there at Batesville (Ark.) Speedway. It was called Locust Grove Speedway at the time, but now it's called Batesville Speedway. My home track.
SBN: Who is someone in NASCAR you really enjoy racing with and always seems to race you cleanly?
MM: I've really dealt with this a lot since I've been on Twitter – your favorite win, your favorite paint scheme, your favorite driver. And I may be getting away from your question, but that's like asking which one of your children is your favorite. My favorite win? C'mon now! Can't it be all of 'em? They're all my children! (Laughs)
But you know, I'll say Tony Stewart. I like racing with Tony Stewart. But because I singled him out, that doesn't mean I don't love racing with 90 percent of the guys in the field right now. That's different from 20 years ago, where there were guys in the field I wasn't comfortable racing with. The quality of drivers is incredible now; there's not a driver in the Cup field that couldn't win with the right race car. Not one single one out of 43. It's amazing the quality level we have in the sport today.
SBN: Well, this may not apply to you then, but is there a driver who you don't like to race because he always drives you extra hard?
MM: That seems to run in cycles. Like it might be one particular guy for two, three, four years, but then it seems like you work through that and then not so much. That's what I've seen throughout my career. I really don't have any problems. I've shown everyone on the racetrack a certain level of respect and I've gotten that back from everyone. But I'm like everyone else, I've had my problems and issues. I try to race everyone the way I would want to be raced. It's a little more difficult today than it used to be, so I have to understand that when I'm on the tough end of it. I have to understand I have to be tough, too, in those situations.
SBN: That leads right into the next question. I know a lot has been made about your personal code of conduct on the track, but where does it stand today?
MM: The sport used to be whoever was fastest prevailed, and there wasn't a huge payoff for trying to delay the inevitable, which was: You're gonna get passed. But the cars weren't affected by one another back then like they are today. So if someone was faster than me, I wanted to expedite this exchange on the racetrack; and vice versa.
Once other drivers that I raced with understood that I was interested in making that exchange and was willing to give when they were the faster ones, then they would in turn give it back to me. And that worked really well, because in a 500-mile race, there'd be goers and comers all race long.
The biggest thing you were doing for 440 miles of a race was logging time, making sure you were still there. You had a lot less reliability in the race cars. You were just seeing who could get to "the race" – the final part of the race – and who was the fastest at that time and who could pull it off.
It's different now. You have to try to be fair if you want to be treated fair. You certainly have to do everything to maintain your track position, because once you lose it now, it's pretty well lost. It's a little more difficult, and you have to make those decisions.
The same guys I used to race with one way – like Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth – we have to race each other differently. Now we have to adapt to the times. We have to take advantage of all the situations that we can, and sometimes we wish we didn't have to do that to our buds, but we do. You get, "Sorry, I had to do that" from your best buds.
SBN: And both you and them are cool with that?
MM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, they understand if you have a chance to go – even though you don't belong ahead – you gotta go. So even if Jeff Burton is faster than me, if I have an opportunity to get around him, then I've got to. I have to. I can't wait. And there's a good chance I'll stay in front of him the rest of that run, you know? It's unfortunate that's how we have to race even our best buddies.
Before, you'd say, "Well, I don't want to get in front of him, because he's going to have to pass me back and that will slow us both down – and we're all going to lose on that." That's how we would have handled that 15 years ago. But not now. If you have an opportunity or an opening to go now, you have to. You have to.
Back then, I think we would have looked at it and said, "Nah, he's faster than me and I don't belong in front of him, because then he'll slow us both down when he passes me back." Now, they might not pass you back even though he's faster than you, because of the way the cars are.
The competition is closer, but the cars are much more (influenced) by the air.
SBN: When people wrong you, do you keep a mental list of people you owe on the track?
MM: I do keep a list, but after X amount of time – depending on how severe it is – they fall off the list. It just kind of wears off. You get over it. And it might take a year or more if it's a bad one; if it's not so bad, it might take a month. I'm like everybody else: I've got my list, and whether you belong there or not, I thought you did. And if the opportunity comes next week to not cut you any slack, then I won't. But it usually doesn't. (Laughs) And then after a period of time, everyone is redeemed.
I think it's kind of like going to high school, because you had all these people around you and you had the ones you really liked, the ones who were OK and the ones you just tolerated. And the ones you just tolerate? Every once in awhile, they'll do something that makes you go, "Well maybe I'm viewing him wrong!" And you think, "Eh, he's OK! That's the way you're supposed to do it!" And they fall off the list.
SBN: If you could turn back time and team up with a driver who doesn't race anymore, who would you pick?
MM: Whoa. Whoaaaa. Well, I don't know, because it's kind of fun to beat your teammate. (Laughs) You know, I have a real weakness for David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. I wouldn't want to go up against those guys!
I asked David Pearson at Charlotte once – when he sat on the pole umpteen-million times in a row – how he did that. I was just getting started. He said, "Getrightupbythatwallcomingoff(Turn)4." That's how he talked, real fast. He was such a cool dude. So I always try to get right up by the wall coming off Turn 4. Didn't seem to get me the pole though!
SBN: What's the last time you got nervous about something?
MM: This morning.
SBN: About what?
MM: Am I good enough? I'm at Darlington. Am I good enough?
SBN: And that really makes you nervous?
MM (nods): Mildly. It's one of the things that has made me what I am. I'm not overconfident, you know? So I'm driven hard (by telling himself): "I've got to be on my game here today. This is Darlington. Am I good enough?"
SBN: You guys do a lot of appearances and autograph sessions and meet fans, and sometimes they can ask uncomfortable questions. Have you had any recent awkward fan moments?
MM: I guess I'm used to it. There's nothing recent, but I do get asked, "What's the strangest thing you've been asked to autograph?" And multiple times, I've been asked to autograph a sweaty bald head. And it doesn't work, it just doesn't work. A Sharpie won't write on a sweaty bald head.
SBN: If you had to pick one of these jobs after you retired from driving, would you rather be a NASCAR broadcaster or high-ranking NASCAR official like a Robin Pemberton or John Darby?
MM: Probably an official. I'm not cut from the right cloth to be a broadcaster. I'm not quick enough on my feet. I get caught thinking instead of talking. When something comes up, I like to think through it. I just don't think I'm quick enough or good enough to do that.
SBN: I've been asking each driver to give me a question for the next guy. Last week, Kurt Busch wanted to know if another tire war would be good for the sport. Your thoughts?
MM: My inclination is no, it wouldn't be good. Yes, it would mix things up, but it would physically hurt a lot of drivers. We weren't prepared to hit the wall like that (when the tires blew out in the last tire war). I know we've got better (safety) stuff now, but when you have a competition like that, you have to push the limits.
It's not good from a cost standpoint, either. There were races where we had to buy 12 sets of both (manufacturers' tires). And there were some races where if you were loyal to Goodyear, then you didn't (buy both) and you got your brains beat in. You had to make the choice. I just don't think it's good. I don't think we need that.
Editor's note: We asked Martin to provide a question for next week's 12 Questions interview, but the scheduled person fell through and the question only applied to them. So we'll pass along Kurt Busch's question again to the next driver.