Fit, fast at 50

Given NASCAR Nation's music tastes, it's only fitting to liken Mark Martin's victory at Phoenix on Saturday to a Toby Keith lyric.

"I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."

Martin is the fourth driver in his 50s to take a Sprint Cup checkered flag. Like Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd before him, he's past his prime and unlikely to win the series championship.

After all, Martin's victory was his first in Cup since 2005, a stretch of 97 races. He made the circuit's playoff Chase in 2004, '05 and '06, but never finished within 100 points of the title.

Martin, though, has advantages Allison, Gant and Shepherd never enjoyed.

One, he drives for NASCAR's bigfoot team, Hendrick Motorsports. Two, he's the fittest 50-year-old to ever bump draft at 180 mph.

"I've been asked a thousand questions about Mark and Mark's age," Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, told reporters after the Phoenix race, "and I can tell you, I don't even think about it. It doesn't even come into the equation when I talk with him and work with him and when I'm around him. It's irrelevant with Mark.

"Mark's enthusiasm, his energy, his drive ... he has more drive than any person I've probably met."

Kurt Busch, who finished third to Martin on Saturday, recalled his father buying him Martin's book: "Strength Training for Performance Driving."

"I was like, man, this guy is built like a brick you-know-what," Busch said.

Indeed, Martin is admired by peers for his fitness and dietary discipline — take note, Tony Stewart. But Rick Hendrick's eight-figure sponsorship package is more critical than Martin's six-pack abs.

This is Martin's first full Cup season since 2006 and his first driving for Hendrick, whose teams have won eight of the last 14 Cup titles: Terry Labonte one, Jeff Gordon four and Jimmie Johnson the last three.

So if any graybeard can supplant Allison as NASCAR's oldest champ (less than a week shy of 46), it's Martin, arguably the best driver never to have won the Cup. Four times he's been runner-up, most recently in 2002, when he finished 38 points behind Stewart.

But Martin insists his resumption of full-time racing is not fueled by some quixotic quest. Moreover, he understands that one victory does not a contender make.

"We need to build our team, and we've got to get better from where we are right now," Martin said Saturday. "But we are eight races (into the season), and we showed improvement tonight. The other races were really good, and we were about sixth place in every ... single one, but that won't win a championship anymore."

Due in part to a pair of engine failures, Martin's season began miserably. He was 34th in points after four races, but four subsequent finishes of seventh or better have vaulted him to 13th in the standings, nine points behind Matt Kenseth.

With the Chase field at 12, Martin is in the hunt. But with playoff veterans such as Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lurking in his rearview mirror, Martin cannot blink.

"It will be very disappointing if we don't make the Chase," Martin said.

The next two weeks, at Talladega and Richmond, could be telling.

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